Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Sometimes a book we read loses something over the years, and sometimes, a book loses nothing. However, once in a great while, a book comes along which ages like a fine wine kept at exactly the right temperature. Since I first read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page back in the early 80s, I have thought about it many times – when I worked with my friend Bob (this was the first book he recommended I read), both times when I saw the PBS special, Island at War (a fictional account of the German occupation of the Channel islands from 1940 to 1945), and when my book club recently read The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society (a memoir of a woman who lived through the occupation). Many of the incidents in the last two appear in Edwards’ fictional memoir. The patience, independence, and cleverness of the islanders showed through in all these works, but G.B. Edwards’ work has the distinction of the voice of an islander who uses his own patois – mixed in with some German, French, and curious phonetic transcriptions. A helpful glossary appears at the end of editions I have seen.

I loved this book then, and I am even fonder of it now. My book club meets this coming Thursday (8/26/10), and I can’t wait to hear what the others thought of it.

Not much information about Edwards has survived. He was a teacher of literature, and no one knew about this novel until the manuscript turned up after his death. Edwards is seated in the picture at left.

Ebenezer Le Page was born and spent his entire life on the Island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands group off the coast of France, which became the only British territory occupied by the Germans during World War II. He tells the story of the island as it struggled with World War I and its aftermath, through World War II and the occupation, and on into the 60s and the changes wrought by that turbulent period. Ebenezer is a kindly gent, but he does edge toward the curmudgeon in his later years, trying to deal with automobiles, tourists, banks, and television.

I did not so much read this book, but rather sat and listened by the fire as an old timer told me of his life. He says, as he explains his book to a friend, “‘I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines’” (374). The honesty, the humor, the passion, the folly, the hard work, the play, all have the feel of immediacy and truth found in few books. Ebenezer writes, “I didn’t want to wake up and find myself dead” (369), and “‘It take all sorts to make a world, my boy; or you, for one, wouldn’t be allowed to live in it’” (335).

Ebenezer has and recalls opinions of others on everything, and one of his funnier moments came in a talk with his friend, Paddy, who worked as a tour guide for the islands. “The most to be dreaded was widows on the loose. Once her husband is dead, a woman gets a new lease of life,’ he said: ‘and she knows all the tricks. Middle-aged couples was easy: the husband did what he was told, or she had to keep watch on him. In either case the woman had her hands full. The lonely hearts was a bloody nuisance’” (311). Ebenezer has his opinion of women, too. “A man got to be careful what he say to a woman; or she will turn it upside-down and inside-out and use it as evidence against him” (186).

Ebenezer always had a thoughtful streak, and really kept his cards close to his chest. But he did pour everything into his book. He writes, “I doubt everything I hear, even if I say it myself; and, after things I have been through and seen happen to other people on this island and known to have happened in the world, I sometimes wonder about the existence of God: but I know I am Ebenezer Le Page” (143).

This novel requires a leisurely read. The prose is mesmerizing, and a reader can easily become lost in the mind of Ebenezer. I forced myself to put it down at critical periods to relax and reflect on what happened in the last section I read. Sometimes, I would go back a few pages and re-read before jumping into the next chapter. I will read the story of Ebenezer Le Page again one of these days, and I am sure it will only continue to improve. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 8/22/10

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