The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: We Have Our Own Modern Day Charlotte Simples and Eddie Meareses

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.

22 thoughts on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: We Have Our Own Modern Day Charlotte Simples and Eddie Meareses”

  1. I remember this movie- one that my husband I watched together. Yes, another dramatic portrayal of misplaced moral rectitude. “God is on my side and certainly not on yours.” And so our early human stories played out in the past just as they do today. If we win whichever battle, it means we are the favored people. Obviously, our God is mightier than yours because you are the LOSERS! Nothing new here, sadly, nothing new. Cycles replay and repeat and it is hard to breathe through this one that is happening right in front of our eyes. But breathe we must. And we shall continue to do so, together.

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  2. I love how you connected a book and movie I adored to our current troubling times.

    I think Adam Kinzinger should be grateful his relatives have exposed themselves – oh so publicly – for the mean, spiteful, unforgiving hypocrites they are.

    As an atheist, my fervent wish is that religion – any religion – stops being an influence or force in politics and our democracy. Period.

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    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed the movie. It seems very sad to me that Kinzinger’s family chose Trump over him. I fear that has happened in many families and the repercussions will be long lasting.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. I get that the many hate groups have different politics than I have and different beliefs about everything. But I am completely baffled by the Christian right; they are so wrong. I didn’t know that about Adam Kinzinger’s family. It’s just, well, baffling. And sad. I can’t remember if I saw that movie or only read the book. But I’m going to find out!

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    1. Thank you for reading! I too am puzzled by the Christian right, but then again I find fundamentalism of any stripe to be a formula for small-mindedness. It was a lovely film. I haven’t read the book, but may well do so now. I read a review of it and it does take several different turns from the film, or should I say that the movie takes liberties with the book!

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  4. I’m going to try to find that movie. I’ve been learning lately about HOW people like Kinzinger’s parents and my (terrible and/or horrific) representative to the House became who and what they are. I have been stunned by learning that much of this radicalization has come from fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christian churches. OK, though raised a Baptist, I was also taught to be suspicious of those two “branches.” My parents explained (and I later experienced on my own as a counselor for a Baptist summer camp) that the foundation of THAT is that if you are not SAVED you are an outsider. It’s like “EST”. (In fact, now I’m thinking of writing that post…) or any sect. ISIS for example? I’m not longer a Baptist (when the church told me only Christians were saved I thought that was a pretty poor God to make those kinds of determinations and exclusions) and I left.

    As I have thought for a while, we’re in the midst of a religious war.

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    1. I agree, fundamentalism of any stripe leads to all kinds of prejudice. The United States has a long history of harboring radical Christian groups who try to impose their will on civil society, the reason the Founding Fathers tried to separate church and state. It feels as if at the local and state level the distinction has become very blurred in parts of the country, to the detriment of a political culture of tolerance and inclusivity.

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      1. Some groups brought that philosophy with them. The Mennonites came from Switzerland and the Alsace (to which they had initially immigrated) specifically because in Switzerland (and other parts of Europe) the church was the state, even in protestant nations. Separation of church and state is an original tenet of their faith. I seriously didn’t appreciate what they did coming here until I was in Switzerland and saw a pier on the Rhine from which they might have begun their journey. Over the gate (which was beautiful) was the date the gate was built. 1643. I wouldn’t have left, but they did.

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    1. I hope so too. But I fear we are in for a lengthy period of populism and know-nothingism fueled by fundamentalism and disinformation. I keep trying to find concrete actions to take to combat it, and the best I’ve come up with is writing about it. Which is really only preaching to the converted, alas.

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  5. I’ll be looking for that movie or book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on our current issues. I have the same appalling Congressperson as Martha alludes to. I’m glad that Adam Kinzinger has expressed his feelings about his family’s actions (though I certainly don’t agree with his politics). Of course they were the ones to make it all public. It’s rather sad and pathetic. I’m so tired of people claiming to know what their god thinks and feels – especially when it’s hateful.

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  6. I’m sorry you have to be “represented” by someone who is so clearly not a compassionate person. So many families in the country have been torn apart by the divisive politics of the last decade. It is terribly sad and yet I completely understand those who feel that for their own sanity they have to distance themselves from relatives (and friends) who demean them in the name of either Trump or a misplaced understanding of faith. I fear it will take q long time to heal. Do watch the movie, it is charming.

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  7. Now I want to find that movie. I read the book 10 or so years ago in a now defunct book club. I don’t remember all that you describe, but then you mention that the movie diverges from the book. Which often happens. Your comparison to present day horrors is fascinating, but then again the underbelly of human nature turns up everywhere. The Senate vote was so disappointing to say the least. History will tell the story someday and I hope the ending is more positive than it looks now. Family members turning on family members for something like this is so incredibly sad – and using their god as a justification is even sadder. I have a dear friend who is in her 90s who has turned to the Bahai faith in the midst of this to find some solace. She is a long time peace activist who has worked for progressive causes her whole life and is just so tired.

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    1. I can relate to your friend’s fatigue. While I am not nearly her age, I just feel that we are sometimes tilting at windmills. But then I think that, at least for me at my age and in my position, giving up is a sign of privilege. When I am in my 90s I will feel that I have earned that privilege!

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