Book Review: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy
It’s 2007, and Reba is a journalist living in El Paso, Texas, with her fiance, border patrol guard, Riki. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to be fully honest with him about her dark childhood overshadowed by her Vietnam Vet father’s struggle with depression and PTSD. Christmas is coming up, and she is interviewing Elsie, the owner of the local German bakery. Elsie has some intense secrets of her own that show it’s not always easy to know what’s right when your country and family go wrong.
I have an intense love for WWII stories, and I immediately was drawn to the idea of intergenerational similarities and learning from an older generation innate in this book’s plot. It is a complex tale that McCoy expertly weaves, managing to show how people are the same, yet different, across race, time, and gender.
Reba’s and Elsie’s tales are about two very different kinds of bravery. Reba has a wounded soul that she must be brave enough to reveal to the man she loves. She lives in fear of turning into her father or losing herself entirely in the love for another, the way her mother did. She faces a struggle that I have heard voiced by many in my generation–do I risk myself and my career for love or do I continue on alone? To this end, then, the most memorable parts of Reba’s story, for me, are when Elsie advises her on love in real life, as opposed to the love you see in movies and fairy tales.
I’ve never been fooled by the romantic, grand gestures. Love is all about the little things, the everyday considerations, kindnesses, and pardons. (location 482)
The truth is, everyone has a dark side. If you can see and forgive his dark side and he can see and forgive yours, then you have something. (location 844)
One issue I had with the book, though, is that although we see Elsie’s two relationships before her husband in stark clarity and reality, we never really see what it is that made her ultimately choose her own husband. We see their meeting and first “date,” yes, but that’s kind of it. I felt the book was building up to what ultimately made Elsie choose her American husband and move to Texas, but we only see snippets of this, whereas we see a lot of Elsie’s interactions with her prior two boyfriends. That was a big disappointment to me, because I wanted to know how Elsie knew he was the one, and how she herself was brave enough to take the leap she encourages Reba to make.
I am sure most people will most intensely react to the story of Elsie’s actions to attempt to save a Jewish boy during WWII and may even wish that was the only real story told. Elsie’s life during wartime Germany. It is definitely the stronger of the two stories, but I so enjoyed the lesson in valuing and listening to those older than you that we see through Reba meeting and learning from Elsie that I must say I like the book just the way it is. Is it different? Yes. But that’s part of what makes it stand out in a slew of WWII fiction. Elsie did this brave thing, and her whole life she never knew if it really made much of a difference. She just lived her life, married, had a daughter, was kind to a journalist. In a sense, it makes her story seem more realistic. Less like something from “The Greatest Generation” and more like something possible to accomplish for anyone with a strong will and willingness to make up her own mind.
One critique I have that slowed the book down for me and made it less enjoyable are the insertion of letters between Elsie and her sister, Hazel, who is in the Lebensborn program. Compared to the rest of the book, the letters were slow-moving and only moderately interesting. I can’t help but feel shorter letters would have gotten the same message across without slowing down the story quite so much. Yes, the inclusion of the sister was necessary to the story, but I feel like she got too much stage time, as it were.
I also have to say that I really hate the cover. It reflects none of the spirit or warmth of the book itself. The story is wrapped in warm ovens, scents of cinnamon, and bravery, and yet we get the back of a woman’s head with an inexplicable gingham strip at the bottom? Yeesh.
Overall, this is a life-affirming story that teaches the value of connecting with the older generations and cautions against thoughtless nationalism. I highly recommend it to fans of literary and WWII fiction alike.
4 out of 5 stars