St. Martin parish
“Though there are many who can tell a story better than I, I will tell you about our roast-pig dinner.” —In a letter from Dawsey Adams to Juliet Ashton
The novel’s pivotal event is set in St. Martin parish, near where I hiked. During the occupation, it was illegal for residents to own pigs. One character had hidden a pig and invited some neighbors to dine on the rare treat of meat after what Dawsey describes as “six months of turnips and a lump of gristle now and then.” One guest brought potato peel pie, a wartime substitute for real pie because butter, flour, and sugar were scarce. As the neighbors walked home, German patrol officers stopped them. A group member improvised the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society idea on the spot, offering a reason for their being out after the 9 p.m. curfew, and the soldiers let them pass. What began as a ruse became a lifeline to the group.
To get a sense of the terrain that the novel’s characters might have trod that night, visitors today can stroll the area’s public footpaths, which lead through meadows and past wildflowers.
Several main characters also lived in St. Martin. “People want to see the addresses,” said Girard. “We can’t identify the exact houses, of course, but the place names are accurate.” As I toured the parish, I saw several homes that could have served as models for those in the story. Some dated to the 17th or even 16th century, and were modernized and added on to; many were crafted from locally quarried granite in lovely tones of pink, rust, peat, orange, and way more than 50 shades of gray.
St. Peter Port
“As the mail boat lurched into the harbour, I saw St. Peter Port, rising up from the sea, with a church at the top like a cake decoration … .” —Juliet Ashton to Sidney Stark
On a boat ride back to Guernsey from the nearby island of Sark, I saw St. Peter Port from the sea. Although my view was different from what this character would have seen in the 1940s, it was enchanting, with sailboats in the harbor, pristinely kempt buildings decorating the hillsides, and a monument known as Victoria Tower at the top of a hill. (The Bailiwick of Guernsey in the Channel Islands includes the islands of Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark, as well as islets such as Herm.)
The port is where Juliet and Dawsey first meet in the story. (Of course, they fall in love.) It’s also where—in the book and in real life—Guernsey residents, fearing a Nazi invasion, evacuated most of the island’s children in June 1940, two weeks before German troops arrived. “The parents thought it would be for just a matter of months,” said Girard, noting that the children were sent to live with families in Scotland and England who had volunteered to care for them. The children didn’t return for five years.
Exploring Guernsey fields
“Guernsey is very beautiful in all its variety—fields, woods, hedgerows, dells, manors, dolmens, wild cliffs … and Norman stone cottages.” —Juliet Ashton to Sidney Stark
In the book, several members of the literary society take Juliet around Guernsey when she comes to visit. I explored the island, too, entranced by fields of yellow flowers and pink orchids; herds of white-and-beige Guernsey cows lounging in emerald-green pastures; and earth-and-granite hedge banks, topped by gorse or blackthorn, in front of farmhouses.
Life under German occupation
“[The Germans] had rules for everything—do this, don’t do that … . Everyone was sickly from so little nourishment and bleak from wondering if it would ever end.” —Eben Ramsey to Juliet Ashton
The novel vividly captures the occupation experience. The conditions that the real Guernsey residents endured are chronicled in sites such as the German Occupation Museum, which has photographs and Nazi uniforms on display; and concrete bunkers and watch towers around the island. Most chilling to me was the German Underground Hospital, a 75,000-square-foot network of tunnels built into the rock. As I walked along the dark, dank passageways, once used to house munitions, the oppression the Guernsey islanders must have felt seemed palpable.
From fiction into fact
“We read books, talked books, argued over books and became dearer and dearer to one another.” —Amelia Maugery to Juliet Ashton
In the novel, once the characters returning from the pig roast had invented their literary society, they had to continue meeting—and reading books—to stay out of trouble. The books opened new worlds; people with scant literary background discovered Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Shakespeare. Reading and discussing books provided companionship and sanity during a terrible time.
That thread throughout the novel inspired me in my journey. By allowing these fictional characters to lead me into the real Guernsey, I learned more than I could have imagined about compassion, resilience, and the power of the written word.
Travel Editor Elizabeth Harryman’s favorite novelist is Toni Morrison.