June 2, 2009 (7:19pm)
I just read, in a three hour sitting, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows. It was an amazing story of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.
The book itself was luminous, at times heart-wrenchingly tragic and at other times laugh out loud funny. It was poignant, bittersweet, profound.
All those superlatives would be enough to have made the time spent reading the book well-invested, but there was an unexpected dividend I discovered as I read the afterword. Like the story itself, heart-wrenching, poignant, bitter-sweet profound.
Mary Ann Shaffer had always wanted to write a book someone would find worth publishing. In 1980 she traveled to England to research the life of Kathleen Scott– the wife of polar explorer Robert Scott. Disappointed by the lack of materials available she jettisoned the project but for some unknown reason took a trip to Guernsey. Stranded in the airport during a fog she read books about the German Occupation found in the airport bookstore and was entranced by the possibility of writing a book set in that time.
But she did nothing with this idea for over 20 years. She did belong to a writing group, however, and they eventually goaded her into writing.
She was directed to an agent who found a publisher who bought the book but asked for a major re-write of portions of the story. She was thrilled but had fallen ill and didn’t have the stamina to complete the re-write so her niece, Annie Barrows stepped in to do the job.
This book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide and has received so much critical acclaim is the result of her, and her niece’s efforts.
Her first novel was published a few months after her death in February, 2008.
All she had ever wanted to do was to write a book someone would want to publish.
She had held onto to the idea about writing a story set in Guernsey for 20 years.
She was goaded and encouraged and supported by so many people into actually doing it.
She couldn’t have known she was going to die before it was published. Perhaps she still thought she had all the time in the world to write. Perhaps, for most of her adult life she thought, "Someday, I’m going to write a book someone will want to publish." But for most of her life, she never did it. Until she did.
She was 74 when she died. How long had she held her dream of being published? What kept her from writing it earlier. It is a bitter-sweet success story– her dream fulfilled. It is heart-wrenching to think she never got to see all the accolades her book has garnered. It is a poignant reminder that dreams are seed that must take root in our actions and commitment to the dreams in order for them to become reality.
I am richer for having read this book, for finding the dividend in the story of how it was written. It would have been such an unknown loss if Mary Ann kept putting off her dream until it was too late to come to fruition.
What a poignant reminder to me, to all of us, perhaps, that we are given dreams, passions for a reason– but none of us can be guaranteed that we will always have the time to fulfill those dreams. It is up to us, only us, to take the first step, then the second and third, to making our dreams a reality.
Mary Ann Shaffer’s dream came true, for which I am exceedingly grateful– for her sake, and for mine. She wrote a book, that not only did someone want to publish, but millions wanted to read.
And her story makes me want to allow my dreams to come true, as well– maybe they won’t be as profound as The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but they still deserve a chance. As do yours.