Reba’s hand lifted off the page. This was more interesting than expected. She tried to keep a neutral tone. “Were you a Nazi?”
“I was German,” replied Elsie.
“So you supported the Nazis?”
“I was German,” Elsie repeated. “Being a Nazi is a political position, not an ethnicity. I am not a Nazi because I am German.”
(from The Baker’s Daughter, page 52)
The Baker’s Daughter is, hands-down, the best book I’ve read so far this year, and I am confident that it will be on my “best of” list for 2012. I have read numerous novels in recent months that shift back and forth between the present and World War II, and most times I prefer the storyline set during the war. While I felt the same way with The Baker’s Daughter at first, by the time I finished I felt that Sarah McCoy had expertly connected the past and the present.
The Baker’s Daughter focuses on two women from different eras, both of whom know hardship and heartache and are trying to find themselves. In 2007, Reba Adams is a reporter trying to forget her past. She left her mother and older sister behind in Virginia and headed to El Paso, wanting to escape the truth about her Vietnam vet father, his suicide, and its aftermath. She reinvents herself with strangers, and when the lies escape her lips, she almost believes them. She is engaged to a border patrol guard, Riki Chavez, but she doesn’t let him see her true self and wears his ring around her neck because she can’t seem to commit.
While writing a Christmas-themed story, she ends up at Elsie’s German Bakery looking for a quote about a traditional German Christmas, but the bakery’s owner, 79-year-old Elsie (Schmidt) Meriwether only remembers the difficult Christmases during World War II, when her family was separated and food was scarce. Reba asks about a picture of a younger Elsie with her mother, asks Elsie to tell her about that Christmas in Garmisch, Germany, in 1944, a night in which 16-year-old Elsie attends a Nazi Christmas Eve party with SS Lieutenant Colonel Josef Hub, who that night asks her to marry him. Elsie is overwhelmed by the entire evening; Josef’s sleazy friend, Major Kremer, hits on her, she tries champagne for the first time, she receives a marriage proposal from a man almost twice her age, and she is captivated by a young Jewish boy from the Dachau concentration camp who the Nazis get to sing for the occasion — the same Jewish boy who turns up on the doorstep of the Schmidt Bakery later that night.
I was instantly captivated by Elsie’s story, and McCoy does a brilliant job setting the scene. I felt like I was in the bakery, with the smells of the dough, the brick oven, and Elsie’s fear in the air. McCoy perfectly captures the frustrations of the Germans as the war nears the end; they are hungry, scared to say the wrong thing with the Gestapo always watching, and torn between their love for their country and their disillusionment with the politics of the Reich. This patriotism and confusion are exemplified by Elsie, as she accepts Josef’s proposal for the protection it offers not because she loves him, and especially by Elsie’s sister, Hazel, who is a resident of the Lebensborn program and has given birth to twins for the Fatherland, and one of the infants appears not to be a perfect Aryan. McCoy also gets into the heads of some of the minor characters as well, particularly Josef and Riki, juxtaposing one’s struggles with Nazi ideology with the other’s involvement in the border wars between the U.S. and Mexico as he questions immigration laws even while he enforces them.
I didn’t expect The Baker’s Daughter to be such a complex novel that covers so much ground, from mothers and daughters and relationships between sisters to the hardships of war and the battles we fight internally. McCoy deftly moves between the past and the present and mixes things up a bit with letters and e-mails between the characters, but never does the reader feel lost. Even the secondary characters are complicated and intriguing, which can be difficult to pull off. Normally I finish these types of novels believing that the story set in the present could have been removed without readers noticing, but The Baker’s Daughter is a perfectly crafted novel in which Elsie’s past plays into Reba’s present and both are important to the story. But if that’s not enough of a recommendation, let me tell you that several recipes from Elsie’s German Bakery are featured at the end of the book. The Black Forest Cake and Cinnamon Rolls sound delicious. I should have baked them first and ate while reading!
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.