Early this Spring, I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It is an excellent book and has everything that a good book must have. It is set on an island in the English channel during an war-time occupation. There are vivid characters and a fashionable heroine who is dating a very rich, exciting and handsome man. This rich man wants nothing more than to marry the heroine, but she is a writer and after she stumbles upon the Island of Guernsey, stories start popping up in all their various sad, tragic, joyful and absurd permutations, including an feisty orphan, a recalcitrant pig farmer and the discovery of a valuable treasure! The heroine is completely unable to leave Guernsey until she finds her happy ending and the reader never wants to leave the Island of Guernsey because it is a perfect book and they are so HARD TO FIND!
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is a epistolary book, meaning it is a book of letters. The various characters write to each other and this is how the story unfolds. When I came to the end of this book, I was sad to discover that Mary Ann Shaffer, the author of this wonderful book died before her book was published and she never wrote another book. Her niece, Annie Barrows, finished the book for her aunt and saw it through the editing and publishing stages.
Two other books immediately sprang to my mind as I was reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They are also epistolary books and I love them as ferociously as I love The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The first book is Daddy Long Legs. Over the course of my childhood and teenage years, I probably read and re-read Daddy Long Legs twenty times. I loved this book, and I always thought that it was a true story. The copy that I read as a child had photographs in it… black and white photographs on slick pages and I honestly believed that they were photographs of the main characters of the book. I was sure that ‘Judy’ or Jerusha Abbot was a real orphan who was sent to a real college by an actual rich trustee of the John Grier Orphanage where she grew up. I thought that Judy’s letters to her ‘Daddy Long Legs’, (the person who was anonymously paying for her education) were real letters and that someone had placed all the letters and photographs in a book to tell people about this wonderful story. I believed this my entire life until a few months ago when I ordered a copy of Daddy Long Legs and discovered that a woman named Jean Webster wrote this book and she was neither an orphan nor the benefactor of an education by a long-legged trustee of The John Grier Home! There was no Jerusha Abbott! There was no Daddy Long Legs! There were no orphans in blue gingham suits, no trunk full of surprise ball-gowns, and no gas house where Jerusha burns her first novel after it is rejected! It was all a story! A made-up story! But the letters!… the letters!… the letters were so real! It was like discovering that there was no Santa Claus… no Easter Bunny! I am still trying to deal with this shocking news, but I did find a bit of information with which to comfort myself. Because Jean Webster the author of Daddy Long Legs… the book I so loved as a child… WROTE OTHER BOOKS TOO!
A bit about Jean Webster the author of Daddy Long Legs…
Jean Webster’s mother was a niece of Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain. Jean’s father was Mark Twain’s business manager. The business and personal relationship between Jean’s father and Mark Twain was a successful one for both parties for a while, but it eventually began to erode causing Jean’s father to take a leave of absence from his job and a few years later, he committed suicide from a drug overdose. Jean became an accomplished writer early in her life, but due to this sad history, she never talked about her famous relative.
Jean came from a family that was always interested in social reform especially temperance and suffrage. Jean herself became active in penal and orphanage reform during college and remained active in these issues her entire life. Her two most well-known books (Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy) revolve around orphans, orphanages and people who work to make their lives better.
The Book, Daddy Long Legs has been re-worked into plays, musicals, Japanese, anime’, and foreign television series. It continues to inspire adaptations to this day. I watched the Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron musical version of Daddy Long Legs, recently and was horrified by the whole thing. It is so far removed from the actual book, that I don’t see how it could possibly be related. The only similarities are that the main character is an orphan and an anonymous rich guy pays for her education. Everything else… well… not even the dancing of Fred and Leslie can make up for this silly story that in no way resembles the great book that supposedly inspired it.
Jean married Glenn Ford McKinney in 1915 and the two of them honeymooned at McKinney’s cabin near Quebec. Former president Theodore Roosevelt visited the honeymooners and he is quoted as saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet Jean Webster. We can put up a partition in the cabin.” Within a year, Jean became pregnant and entered the hospital to have the baby on June 10, 1916. She passed away one day after giving birth to her daughter who was named Jean as well.
Jean’s books are upbeat, full of wit, breezy and yet steeped in the important issues of her day. It is this combination of a writer pointing to how to make the world better, while writing with such vivid settings, quirky characters, wit and optimism that make her books uplifting and fun to read even to this day.
Now who would like a Jean Webster Book!
I ordered several copies of Daddy Long Legs for a giveaway, but I quickly realized I was not going to be able to give them all away.
Each copy that arrived in the mail, was a little different. Clearly, I can not give away this one with the sweet book jacket!
Blue and gold… with a heart and roses! I can’t give away this one!
Plain red cover and kind of blurry… I can probably give away this one…
You may answer this question if you like in the comments…
Do you think the art of letter writing is dead?
Winners will be chosen at random on Friday September 25, 2009 around 9 pm.