During Holy Week of 2015, we were a few world-weary friends, seeking sanctuary. The reading of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had brought us together in another discussion group and we wanted to create a vibrant community of kindred spirits who would read widely and deeply, and in so doing cultivate thoughtful relationships with each other. We were a “secret” book club with a few dozen friends. All of us had read that book and understood that it represented a culture of friends who preserved their dignity, humanity and moral compass during an abusive Nazi occupation. And so, Potato Peel Pie Society Facebook group was born.
We didn’t start the group with the intention of attracting followers or patting ourselves on the back by accumulating friends. We needed each other. Like the people in Guernsey. We created a space for the exchange of ideas, to sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron.
Like the friends in Guernsey, we viewed our book club as an effort to preserve some small piece of the beauty and wisdom of traditional Western culture. We thought that by reading good and great books together, we could fortify ourselves against some of the challenges of modernity and progressivism.
Along the way, friends added their friends, who then added their friends. In very organic ways, our group began to swell with kindred spirits who were in search of their tribe. Who knew that so many unrelated souls could find friendship and a home in our little book club?
A mere 14 months later, we have added more than 1,000 members to the club and a collection of theme-based sister groups. We rejoice at the provision of our Lord! So many friends, from so many places! Together, we continue to be a vibrant community of readers, friends and lovers of all bookish things!
During the month of June, we will celebrate these friendships! Over the next four weeks, members of The Potato Peel Pie Society Facebook group will see posts every couple of days for delightful challenges and prizes. We invite you to join in the fun!
Once upon a time, in a book club far, far away some friends got together and read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I must confess that I instigated the request for the book. I had read it a while before, and was positive they would also like it. I love to read stories regarding World War II, and with a name like that, is HAS to be good, right?? Well, it is.
Guernsey (as we lovingly call it for short) begins about a year after the end of World War II. The main character, Juliet Ashton, spent most of the war years writing uplifting newspaper articles to help her fellow countrymen keep stiff upper lips and a smiles on their faces. Now that it’s all over, her works have been made into a book, and she has set about on a tour of bookstores and guest appearances at clubs, to promote the book. She is excited for the book’s success, but it is exhausting, sometimes thankless work. She longs to be able to put the war and her literary character, Izzy Bickerstaff, behind her and write something that has nothing to do with the war. Enter a letter from a pig farmer on the Isle of Guernsey, which is in the English Channel between England and France. He has somehow acquired a copy of a book by Charles Lamb that used to belong to Juliet, and he is hoping she will be able to put him in touch with more books by this same author. Her question to him was, “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey?” and with that, began an unusual pen pal relationship.
With every note and letter from Dawsey Adams (the man on Guernsey), Juliet becomes more interested in his life and life on the island, especially after she learns they endured German occupation for five years. How did they exist? What did they do for fun? How did they steer clear of the Germans? Life in London at the same time pretty much occupied all of Juliet’s thinking, leaving little time for any thought of an island in the Channel. She learns how Dawsey and his friends were invited to a secret pig roast, stayed out too late, and, in order to avoid arrest, made up their “literary society.” They had become so engrossed in their book discussions (so they said) that they completely lost track of the time. That bit of seat-of-the-pants thinking was the brainchild of Elizabeth McKenna, who showed no fear, could think on a dime, and walked them all away from the soldiers as if it were a walk in the park. The next day is a frenzy of rounding up the other supper participants and as many books as they can lay hands on in order to look like a real book club. Several join under protest, but as time wears on, and the war seems never to end, it becomes a lifeline for them all.
This is not unlike our own dear Potato Peel Society on Facebook. A very few of us were set adrift in a wide cyber sea trying to figure out what was the next right thing, and PPPS was born. We were small, we had ideals, and wanted very much to share them with as many as would listen. Homeschoolers are a large portion of this group, and it is a joy to put them in touch with classic literature that is Good, True, and Beautiful. The world is a very hard place, and much harder if one has to make it seemingly alone. We have members in a broad range of ages, and family dynamics, but we have forged a way to be kind and helpful to each other.
As time and letter-writing progresses Juliet becomes acquainted with the members of the GLPPPS. She wants to write an article in The Times focusing on their wartime experiences. Juliet wants to intimately learn of each member, and how they fit into the group. There are several characters who are pioneers of the group; all from as various backgrounds as you can imagine. Each of these members, and a few others that are heard from later in the book have one main, binding character, and that is Elizabeth. She is the Guernsey equivalent to Juliet. It seems there is nothing she can’t do, and none of it is ever done for her own glory or personal gain. In the midst of such evil going on around them all, Elizabeth is the epitome of grace under fire; and it is that loving, giving heart that gets her into trouble.
By the time Juliet meets up with the islanders, there have been some significant changes in the dynamics of the members; so now, on top of writing more for her stories, she wants to know what happened.
Now this is the part that might become a sticking point for some. A beloved character who has engaged in an affair outside of marriage, a child born out of wedlock; there are mentions of a couple of characters in the book who are homosexuals, but they are only mentioned by way of explanation, they are not glorified for their bent, there is minimal swearing, and it is not for shock value or to add words to a page. It is usually used in a form of disbelief at something that has happened that wasn’t expected. No matter how war is presented, it is not pretty. People do and say ugly things. That is a byproduct of war. This is to inform you, to make you aware that though this is not a terrible story, it IS a terrible story! The practices of the Germans during the occupation were downright ugly. You don’t have to read much to find that out in any other book about the war. Though horrible things are talked about in this book, they are done so tastefully that you should not be offended by their telling. It is a truth that needs to be remembered when the world tries to scream that it never happened.
Last year I got to spend two weeks in Europe with my nephew and his school group touring Paris, Munich, Dresden, Prague and Berlin. The highlight of the trip, for me, was a day trip to Normandy. We got to see Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and the American Cemetery. The drive from Paris to Normandy goes through a lot of small villages that were right in the path of all the armies. We got to stand in the bunkers on the cliffs, and see the guns that were used against the allies as they stormed the beaches. I was truly hoping I would get to catch a glimpse of the Channel Islands from where we stood, but the weather was not quite good enough for that. I did stand there looking out over the water imagining the island and the people I had read of as they endured the long years of occupation. I was fortunate to visit Dachau. Fortunate seems a strange word to use for such a place, but it’s true. To see where the prisoners lived and died was quite sobering; especially as I walked across the creek to see the crematoriums, the large brick ovens used nonstop. There is a statue near that building in honor of the victims. The inscription on the statue reads: “Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung.” (A warning or reminder from the dead to the living) It reminded me of the todt workers in TGLPPS. All I could do was stand there and cry. I will never forget any of that, or the sights in Munich or Berlin.
Using this book as a basis for our book club has given us some fun, and sometimes unusual occupations. When we finished reading Guernsey, some of us said we loved the way the book was written in letter form, and gosh, wouldn’t it be fun to have our own pen pals? Why yes, yes it would. Thus was born our pen pal group. There were those who wrote to each other individually, and many joined round robin groups. We also created a group that exists to share books with each other. Some books are for sale, but many, many are just given away because it is known they are going to good homes and will be put to good use. It is similar to the book shop in this story. The gentleman who runs the shop is quite willing to search high and low for a book that has been wished for. I believe he is incarnated in this group. We have a group that is focused on homeschool, a group for the personal growth of the mothers (and fathers) who are schooling their children, and just fun, individual events for books that we can read together and discuss as much or as little as we want. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is our motto, and The Golden Rule is our rule. In a raging sea of a world in a mess, this group aims to be a port in a storm; a place to get your bearings, find mooring, and compass points to promote smooth sailing.
(If you have read this book, I would encourage you to also listen to the audio version. It is read word for word by several different actors as the different characters in the written text. It is engaging and heartfelt. In my humble opinion, you will love it!)
“If the pages that follow are inspiring, enlightening, or life changing, I take full responsibility, but if there are any errors it is not my fault.” – Prologue from The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic
“There is a very good possibility that you will not believe a word I say.” Excellent opening words for a family read aloud and a book review alike. I don’t know about you, but such an opening, clues me into the sense that I am about to go on a wild adventure.
Every once in awhile a book comes along that is truly special. Not only is it worthy, but there is something about it that just resonates with your family in a way that is irrefutable. Selecting books for family read aloud is tricky business. Books supply our vernacular. Books become our shared memories. Books become the things that we do together because they are worth doing. Finding read aloud books that enhance family culture can be daunting. Finding books that delight while they teach, sometimes feels, practically impossible.
“In the best works of art, you can’t always figure out the meaning immediately. Sometimes your heart knows first, even while your mind is still lost.”
I cannot lie. We have become read aloud snobs in our house. We have feasted on CS Lewis, Edith Nesbit, George MacDonald, Beverly Cleary, Noel Streatfeild, Ralph Moody and so many other greats. We are spoiled with excellent stories, such that when we meet new books, we approach them with some measured suspicion. Bravo to Jennifer Trafton. She did not allow us even a moment’s hesitation, before we fell in love.
In all honesty, the cover of the book is perfect. Ignore the advice to not judge a book by its cover. In this case, the cover has captured the essence of this little tale with affection and understanding. Mount Majestic is a hero tale, with lovable but unlikely heroes. It is whimsical, but more serious than it initially seems. It has a romantic setting and draws from a deep well of fairy tale lore.
Trafton, clearly, is a teacher. Her writing is very elegant and inspires a love for beautiful language. She uses litanies of powerful words but cleverly defines them through character conversation or additional detailing. Some of primary characters are children and Trafton uses their questions, insecurities, and child-like biases, to invite young readers into the substance of the story.
Charming. Delightful. Dreamy. Darling. Dulcet. Enchanting. Delicious. This book begs to be, no, insists upon being, read aloud. Almost musical. Often poetic. Sometimes dramatic. The sentences roll off of the tongue and the reader just knows what Trafton intends as they are reading aloud. The story unfolds faster than the words can convey and so the mind and heart are well prepared to dance along with the writing.
“The King has never in his life seen such an expression, or worn one either. It was the look of gratitude. But though he had no name for it, he liked it.”
At no point does the story lag or take a wrong turn. In fact, it builds beautifully. Just as Persimmony, more than once, walks in an ever widening circle around somewhere she knows, the readers enjoy walking with Trafton in that same kind of spiral. The chapters alternate between characters, sometimes overlapping, always growing in detail and always consistent with the story arc and the reader’s journey. And, much to the chagrin of my little people, nearly every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Towards the end, we had to read 2 or 3 chapters per night because of the agitation of my invested readers who simply had to know what happened to their favorites characters.
The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic is more than a great story. It is also a deeply moral one. I think that it will take several readings to unpack some of the beautiful notions that we entertained while reading. There are several spiritual or moral currents that run through this story. The obvious, and some which go deeper. I am very grateful for the texture in this tale. It gave all of us something to work out in the back of our minds while we read.
I wish that this one was available in audio! This summer, at this site, we are planning to organize a letter writing campaign to petition Puffin to order a spoken version of this story.