The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy (Crown, 2012)
The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy is a compelling read, a good story, and a novel that one wants to discuss when finished reading. It tells the parallel stories of two young women; one an German teenager at the end of World War II, the other an American reporter, struggling to find her voice as a writer in El Paso, Texas in 2008. The two characters meet early in the novel, when Reba Adams, is sent out on assignment to do a feature on German Yule customs. Elsie Schmidt Meriwether, owner of the bakery, had left Germany after the war with her young American husband. Together, they established the German bakery in El Paso that became quite popular as the breads and cakes were an enticing departure from the largely Mexican cuisine available in the American Southwest. When Reba cannot get sufficient information for her story after her first visit to Elsie's store, she feels compelled to keep digging for she senses there is a tale there waiting to be told.
But Elsie, now elderly and supported by her daughter Jane, harbors terrible secrets about her experiences during the war, and it is impossible for her to reveal them even to such a lovely, young woman. As a responsible teen, and a daughter of the Reich, Elsie had worked in her parents' “bakerei.” Her older sister, Hazel, had left their home to participate in the Lebensborn Program, where she became a broodmare for the Reich after her beloved, Peter, was killed during battle. Her mission is to bear beautiful, perfect Aryan children to continue Hitler's dream of an empire that would last 1000 years. Dutiful Hazel gives birth to three children; a son, and a set of twins, one of whom is imperfect, unfortunately for the devoted mother.
Elsie has had the good fortune to attract the attention of a German SS officer, Josef Hub, who is almost twice her age. Although she is not in love with him, he provides protection for her family, and sees to it that her parents receive the supplies that they need to keep the “bakerei” open, even as the Reich is beginning to crumble. Josef even presents Elsie with a ruby and diamond ring when he proposes marriage, but she is reluctant to say yes. Even though he appears to be a decent man, Elsie longs for the kind of kisses that she has seen in the forbidden American movies that she so adores. And Elsie discovers that the ring Josef has given her is tainted, for she notices an inscription on the inside of the ring that appears to be written in Hebrew. Obviously the engagement token is the spoils of a war perpetrated by a Reich that is dangerous and frightening. Elsie is beginning to realize that Josef and his kind are concealing the horrors being perpetrated in Dachau and other places like it all around the Reich.
One night Elsie makes the dangerous decision to hide a small Jewish boy who has a beautiful singing voice, and had entertained the Nazis at a party which Elsie had attended with Josef. She conceals him in the wall behind her bedroom, and provides him with food, books to read, and warm clothing. Although she realizes that if Tobias, the child, is discovered, her whole family could be exterminated, Elsie accepts the risk for what she knows is the moral thing to do. She feels a kindred spirit with Tobias who is so sweet and grateful for her sacrifice for him.
The story of Elsie and her family during the crumbling days of the Reich is compelling. Elsie's family, Mutti and Papa, are hard working and seemingly decent citizens, who sacrifice a great deal for their country. When Hazel disappears, her young son, who has been raised solely under the auspices of a Nazi nursery, is sent back to live with the family. The child is a suspicious, bitter, and angry boy, who sulks all day, playing with his toy soldiers and spouting off pronouncements that he has been indoctrinated with through his Nazi upbringing. Nothing pleases the child and Elsie finds him to be the antithesis of the boy she is hiding in her bedroom wall.
The secondary story of the novel is that of the reporter, Reba Adams, who has had a shaky past herself, and she is running from it, trying to recreate herself into a successful reporter. Despite her shielding her pain of a turbulent childhood, and constructing a protective layer for herself, Reba lands a decent job and home in El Paso. She also finds a man, whom she thinks might be “the one,” a border guard named Riki Chavez. A few weeks after meeting Riki, “she lay naked beside him, wondering who was this woman that possessed her body. Not Reba Adams. Or at least not the Reba Adams from Richmond, Virginia. That girl would never have slept with a man after knowing hm such little time. Scandalous! But this girl felt shiny new, and that was exactly what she wanted.” (p.6)
However, Reba's wanderlust and fear of being happy cause her to make decisions that may not be in her best interest as she struggles to define who she wants to become in this life.
There are several really strong points about The Baker's Daughter. First, it is rich in theme telling the stories of two strong, young women who are searching for their identities by taking personal risks and clashing with people whom they love in order to self-discover. They learn that in the end, each of us is responsible for his or her own actions, and must live with the choices made, for better or worse. McCoy also uses Riki's experiences as a border guard in the contemporary United States to show that even today choices are made by a decent government that threaten the lives of innocent children, just as what Elsie experienced by hiding Tobias in the wall of her home. The never-ending loop of human suffering continues unless strong individuals are willing to stand up against it.
One final word must be added about The Baker's Daughter. Throughout the novel, when visitors come to the Schmidt bakery, whether in Germany or El Paso, they are treated to confections that are described so powerfully that the readers' mouths water. McCoy, who spent much of her childhood in Germany as her Dad was an American soldier based there, obviously learned a lot about German goodies. As a nice concluding touch, McCoy includes about ten recipes for German cakes and breads mentioned in the book, as well as a few of the Mexican items mentioned in the story as well. Thus, if you are hungry upon concluding this delectable read, you can take yourself into the kitchen and prepare some lebkuchen hearts or brochen for yourself.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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