The Baker’s Daughter: A Novel
Sarah McCoy (blog) (Facebook) (Twitter) (Goodreads)
Crown (January 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0307460185 / 9780307460189)
(paperback edition publishing August 2012)
Fiction, 304 pages
Reason for Reading: TLC Book Tour
Opening lines: “Long after the downstairs oven had cooled to the touch and the upstairs had grown warm with bodies cocooned in cotton sheets, she slipped her feet from beneath the thin coverlet and quietly made her way through the darkness, neglecting her slippers for fear that their clip might wake her sleeping husband. She paused momentarily at the girl’s room, hand on the knob, and leaned an ear against the door. A light snore trembled through the wood, and she matched her breath to it. If only she could halt the seasons, forget the past and present, turn the handle and climb in beside her like old times. But she could not forget.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger.
Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine. Reba is perpetually on the run from memories of a turbulent childhood, but she’s been in El Paso long enough to get a full-time job and a fiancé, Riki Chavez. Riki, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, finds comfort in strict rules and regulations, whereas Reba feels that lines are often blurred.
Reba’s latest assignment has brought her to the shop of an elderly baker across town. The interview should take a few hours at most, but the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery is no easy subject. Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of darker times: her life in Germany during that last bleak year of WWII. And as Elsie, Reba, and Riki’s lives become more intertwined, all are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
Comments: Elsie Schmidt Meriwether, the baker’s daughter–a successful baker and businesswoman in her own right–has carried many secrets with her during the sixty-plus years since World War II ended and she left Germany with her American army medic. Although Reba Adams is decades younger, the magazine writer has long-held secrets of her own. When the two of them meet for an interview about old-country holiday traditions, neither expects it to be the catalyst for the unwrapping and release of all those suppressed stories–and the feelings that accompany them.
In The Baker’s Daughter, Sarah McCoy covers an impressive amount of story within an economical 300 pages. In brief chapters that shift between past and present narratives, she explores the life of a German baker’s family during the last months of the Third Reich, the modern-day personal conflicts of an El Paso-based feature writer, and the unexpected friendship that grows out of the intersection of their stories. McCoy also weaves larger themes of cultural conflict into both the historical and contemporary threads of her story, via the Schmidt family’s Nazi connections and Reba’s Mexican-American fiancé Riki’s work with the Border Patrol, and makes a lesser-known component of the “master race” plan, the Lebensborn project, a significant part of Elsie’s family’s story. Between the history, the social issues, and the interpersonal relationships, this novel has quite a reach–and more often than not, it connects.
That said, at times The Baker’s Daughter felt a little overstuffed, and personally, I don’t think it would have suffered much from dropping a subplot or two. Although I appreciated the way that McCoy mirrored elements and themes in both of the novel’s timeframes, I’m not sure the illegal-immigrants thread was terribly vital, and I was probably close to halfway through the book before Reba and her story really engaged me. However, Elsie is the title character who carries the bulk of the novel, and in both the past and present, at seventeen and in her eighties, she was resourceful, caring, and affecting, and she thoroughly held my interest.
I don’t read much historical fiction and I’m not sure I’ve read any that has this particular perspective on the latter days of World War II, but I was engrossed by McCoy’s depiction of the struggles of ordinary Germans, coping with privation they begin to realize they’re on the losing side of history. I was also fascinated by Lebensborn; I’d never heard of it and don’t know how accurately it’s portrayed here, but the whole idea of a corps of young unmarried women who effectively served as both courtesans to select Nazis and producers of “perfected Aryan” children is all at once repugnant and surprisingly open-minded.
The Baker’s Daughter is “about” a lot of things–war, sisterhood, secrets, friendship, food–but ultimately it’s about Elsie Schmidt, and she’s got a great story. I’m not sure how much it really needs to be mixed with so many other stories here, but Sarah McCoy blends all the flavors together well, and in the end, I found this novel pretty satisfying.