For our Valentine date night, Dan and I watched The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Netflix, a feel-good tale set on the bucolic isle immediately after World War II. Smitten by the gorgeous scenery, the deftly told tale of the Nazi occupation of Guernsey and the happy ending — I was nonetheless left pondering how two of the minor characters reminded me of the moral and spiritual ambiguities of our current moment.
The plot: After receiving a letter forwarded to her from her childhood address, our heroine Juliet, a beautiful young writer living in London, strikes up a correspondence with an (unbeknownst to her) handsome young Guernsey pig farmer. He got her former address from the frontispiece of a book by Charles Lamb that she had owned years before, which had somehow inexplicably found its way to the Guernsey Library. She learns that his book club began as a cover story for villagers snared after curfew by German officers during the occupation. Intrigued, she travels to Guernsey to interview the members for an article she intends to write about readers for The London Times.
Fast forward: It turns out that the Literary Society does not wish to be written about, largely because the group harbors a long-kept secret about one of its number, a young woman named Elizabeth who has been “off island” since the war, leaving behind a tow-headed four-year-old. It is Elizabeth’s story that Juliet unwraps, peeling layers away through newspaper research, gentle prodding of various villagers and the help of her connections back in London.
Back to the two minor characters who so captivated my attention: The first, a judgmental Lutheran spinster, became Juliet’s landlady. Rigid, prying and certain of her own rectitude if no one else’s, Charlotte Stimple told Juliet that Elizabeth had consorted with the Nazis for mercenary means, trading sexual favors for favored treatment. In fact, Elizabeth did have a forbidden affair with a German medical officer, the father of her daughter Kit. Recalled to Germany before the two could wed in secret, he was killed when his boat was torpedoed in the English Channel.
However, Elizabeth was not a slut, as Stimple asserted. Her arrest and deportation to the Ravensbruck Camp was the result of an act of altruism not seduction. She aided a sick young “worker,” one of a thousand slaves brought to the island to construct Nazi fortifications. Leaving her infant daughter behind, she tried to sneak the young man to the hospital where she was a nurse. Someone alerted the authorities. Elizabeth disappeared, never to be seen again on Guernsey. At Ravensbruck, Elizabeth was shot after once again aiding someone in need of protection, this time another prisoner being beaten by a guard.
Charlotte Stimple’s world was black and white, without intellectual curiosity or the ability to identify with people not exactly like herself. Hiding behind her evangelical, fundamentalist faith, Stimple was in truth a woman lacking in both compassion and the ability to understand a woman like Elizabeth, whose moral color spectrum included shades of grey in addition to the reds and yellows of passion and empathy. Perceiving herself as the town constable protecting the truth against neighbors whom she resented for their devotion to Elizabeth, she proclaimed their version of events “fake news” as she tried to turn Juliet against them.
The second minor character, whom we see only fleetingly, is Eddie Meares, a twenty something young man with a chip on his shoulder and a vague air of menace. We learn late in the film that it was he who turned Elizabeth in to the authorities, an act that fit a pattern of collaboration that kept him well compensated as long as the German occupation lasted. Eddie, too, excused his behavior by demonizing his victim. Drinking in the local pub, he called Elizabeth a slut and her daughter “a half-breed” prompting Dawsey, the pig farmer, to give him a beat down while the other patrons cheered him on.
A happy ending: Elizabeth’s fate is learned by her friends, bringing closure to the mystery and rehabilitating her reputation. Juliet and Dawsey marry, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society continues and Charlotte Stimple and Eddie Meares live out their lives as village pariahs for their prejudice and undermining of village cohesion.
Would that our story has such a happy ending! We too are in a postwar period of sorts, one in which some Republicans who wear the mantle of Christian conservatism judge those who have turned against Trump and Trumpism as fallen souls, heretics not to be celebrated for their acts of courage but pilloried for aiding “the enemy.”
I’m thinking specifically of Congressman Adam Kinzinger, whose own evangelical family has disowned him for voting for impeachment. Like Charlotte Stimple, his critics claim that God is on their side. In a handwritten letter, they wrote “Oh my what a disappointment you are to us and to God! We were so proud of your accomplishments! Instead, you go against your Christian principles and join the “devil’s army” (Democrats and the fake news media).”
And calculating, bigoted Eddie Meares is a mid-twentieth century version of any number of Republican elected officials who were willing to curry favor with an occupying force for short term gain, even if it meant putting others at grave risk. Riding the wave of Trumpublicanism, they are collaborating in order to avoid being primaried in the next election cycle or in order to continue the grift. How else can one describe ginning up and excusing the January 6th insurrection? One can only hope that in the end, they too will be pariahs.
I’m not anguine. Unlike the Isle of Guernsey, the United States isn’t a tightly knit homogeneous society riven only by individual characters’ flaws. Here, in 2021, we are a nation at the precipice of becoming a failed state, Joe Biden’s victory notwithstanding. Forty percent of our population is comprised of Charlotte Stimples and Eddie Meares, willing to see the rest of us as the devil’s army, radical socialists, aliens, people unworthy of being Americans at worst or people easily demonized for personal political gain at best. The occupation of the capitol may have ended, but the occupation of the hearts and minds of so many of our neighbors has not. It will take more than an armistice to put out the embers of bigotry and resentment that fuel it.