I keep hearing about this book with a quirky and unforgettable title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; I don't know how many times I've heard the title and made a passing mental note of it, meaning to look into it. But it wasn't until this morning, when I saw it mentioned on a Goodreads update (I believe Miss Erin marked it "to read") that I took note of the name of the author. Mary Ann Shaffer (and Annie Barrows). Mary Ann Shaffer. Immediately my mind flashed to a wonderful woman I had worked with at the fabulous independent bookstore, Book Passage, in the early 90s, while I was in college. She had been an older lady, a former librarian, and a hoot of a storyteller with a hint of a West Virginia drawl. But, I mean, the name Mary Ann Shaffer is probably pretty common.
But, it turns out, this is indeed the same Mary Ann Shaffer! I knew as soon as I saw the picture of the authors at the book's website -- so wonderful to see her face again! And when I saw the link to "the Mary Ann Shaffer Memorial Fund," my heart kind of froze. It turns out that Mary Ann did not live to see her novel published. Or indeed, to see it hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list, or be loved by lots of people. Her niece, children's book author Annie Barrows (author of Ivy and Bean) helped her finish the book when she fell ill, and has had, I imagine, the bittersweet joy and sadness of seeing to it published to great, great success after Mary Ann's passing.
I'm so happy for Mary Ann, and so saddened by the news.
There is a story she told me once at Book Passage that has stuck with me, that I have repeated over the years, usually when the subject of the actor Anthony Hopkins comes up (you'll see why); I won't be able to tell it as she did, of course, and I'll have forgotten many of the details, but it was something like this. Mary Ann had, after a long period of nursing her husband through an illness, taken the advice of friends and library patrons where she worked, and decided to do something for herself, just for fun. The thing she decided to do was to fly to New York to see Anthony Hopkins perform in Equus. So off she went. What she didn't know was that one of the library patrons had taken it upon herself, through whatever resources she possessed, to notify Mr. Hopkins of Mary Ann's coming, and to tell him a little bit about the circumstances of her trip. So, again, details elude me, but as I recall, Mary Ann arrived in New York and checked into her hotel, and she was out on the street in front of the hotel about to set off on a walk, or to go early to the theater, when she happened to see. . . Anthony Hopkins on the sidewalk. As she watched, kind of amazed, he went up to a woman and asked her a question. The woman shook her head and walked away. He approached another woman and, again, asked her a question. This woman too shook her head and walked away. Mary Ann stopped her, and asked, "What did Anthony Hopkins just say to you?" And the woman said, "He asked if I was Mary Ann Shaffer." Imagine! Of course, Mary Ann was stunned, and managed to say, "But. . . I'm Mary Ann Shaffer!" and the woman urged her, "Go! Go!" and she did, and introduced herself, and Anthony Hopkins very graciously took her on an early tour of the theater and made her feel very special and welcome. And that's all I remember. It has always made me think very well of Anthony Hopkins, and if anyone were to suggest (I don't know why they would) that he is anything but a nice, considerate man, this would be my proof to the contrary!
I wish I remembered more stories. I am so eager now to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which sounds like just the kind of book I love -- a glimpse into a little-known slice of history, peopled with interesting characters. . . And what's more, I gather that it's about book lovers, and about ordinary people bearing up under Nazi occupation, and perhaps committing small acts of heroism.
* * *
In wistful memory of Mary Ann Shaffer, who realized her dream but didn't quite get to see it.
Here's a video of Annie Barrows discussing the book: