People gather to read a book about people who gather to read a book

 ‘One Book. One State. Literally’
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  March 31, 2010

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Now in its eighth year, Reading Across Rhode Island is a three-month project of the Rhode Island Center for the Book at Providence Public Library. Its goal is to encourage readers across the state to read the same book and to engage in lively discussions about their reading.

This year’s selection, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is particularly apt because it’s about a group of people who get together to read.

Set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, it tells the story of a group of locals who are caught out after curfew by occupying Nazi soldiers and quickly dream up an alibi — they were so embroiled in a book discussion that they didn’t realize what time it was.

In order to validate the tall tale, they quickly parcel out books and begin to meet every two weeks. Acquaintance grows into strong and abiding friendship, and those bonds, as well as the transformative power of their readings, help them survive the long war years: the terrible hunger, cold, filth, ragged clothing and shoes; isolation from the world out-side Guernsey; harsh punishments by the Germans; family members dying in battle.

A couple of the literary society members are veteran readers; most are not. They find sustenance in Seneca, Catullus, Shakespeare, Dickens, Carlyle, Emily Bronte, Words-worth, and, most especially Charles Lamb.

The lead author of the book, Shaffer, had worked in bookshops, as a librarian, and as an editor before she penned the novel. A chance trip to Guernsey 20 years ago piqued her interest in the German occupation, and with the prodding of her writers’ group, she completed the book in 2007, sold the manuscript, and then became too ill to do the revisions requested by her editor.

She asked her niece Barrows, an established writer herself, to step in and bring it to publication. Sadly, she passed away before she could experience the avalanche of praise and affection that critics and readers alike have heaped upon her book, one of last year’s best-selling novels.

“The first thing I always think,” Barrows said, in a phone interview a couple of months back, “is ‘Damn, I wish Mary Ann were here.’ But I also think: to be in the presence of her telling a story in our family was to be in the pres-ence of this incredible charm. It pleases me to no end to see that charm roping in people from all over the world. They’re all sitting around the living room with us, listening to Mary Ann.”

Barrows, also the author of the children’s series Ivy and Bean, will be the keynote speaker at Reading Across Rhode Island’s culminating event, the May Breakfast, on May 1 at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet in Cranston. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to readingacrossri.org.

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