Reviewed by Colleen Turner
A story of unlikely friendships and the imprints those can leave on people’s lives, The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy is the harsh yet tender story of a German baker at the end of her life and a young journalist just coming into her own. Spanning from Nazi Germany in 1945 to the border town of El Paso, Texas in 2008, the book’s unforgettable characters go through so many hardships to come out the other side. They demonstrate the essential fact that to have a life worth having one must face the darkness of their past, seek forgiveness, forgive where necessary and move past that darkness into the light of the future.
Reba Adams is beginning to get that stifling, dissatisfied feeling again. Having left behind her family and unhappy childhood memories in Virginia for the sunny, unblemished world of Texas – creating an entirely new life for herself in the process – she has been quite content with her job as a journalist and her fiancé, U.S. Border Patrol agent Riki Chavez. Riki has always had a firm grasp of right and wrong, something that has helped calm the wild memories and emotions inside Reba and has helped build a tentative feeling of trust and security. But after Riki proposes, the idea of being stuck in one place and the possibility of loving someone else to the point of sacrificing her own life and happiness – something demonstrated by Reba’s own parents – begins to close in the walls Reba has slowly let down for Riki. And when Riki starts to question whether his job deporting illegal Mexicans seeking a better life in America is always the right thing to do, her perceptions become even more imbalanced.
When Reba’s latest assignment to write a “Christmas around the world” article brings her to a German bakery, she comes into contact with the owner and head baker, Elsie Schmidt Meriwether, and both of their lives are irrevocably changed. Elsie and her daughter, Jane, become like family to Reba and teach her, through their example and their kindness, that running from her past and putting up walls in order to block out the fear of more pain will only keep her from experiencing the joy of the present. And with Reba’s ardent inquisitiveness and determination to get to the heart of her story, Elsie is forced to remember the events of the winter of 1945, events that she has not only kept hidden from those she loves but has attempted to keep hidden from herself as well.
In 1945 a naïve teenage Elsie is courted by a handsome, older Nazi officer and therefore sheltered, along with her family, from the worst of the degradations of the party. Following a glitzy Christmas Eve banquet at which she is nearly raped by a high-ranking officer, her ideals of what is right and wrong begin to waiver. When the young Jewish singer that created the distraction that saved Elsie from being raped shows up on her doorstep that same night, asking for shelter and her help so he is not sent back to the death camps, her beliefs are further tested. She must make the decision to either help this poor, defenseless boy and therefore put her entire family’s lives in jeopardy or turn him away into the night and certain death. She decides to hide the boy in a secret compartment within her bedroom wall and, in time, comes to care for him deeply. But as the Nazi regime begins to crumble and eyes become focused on her every move, she faces making decisions that will have dire consequences for all those involved, decisions that will ultimately lead her to Texas and a life she could never have imagined.
Moving back and forth between Elsie’s backstory in Germany and Reba and Elsie in present-day Texas the reader gets to experience the various hidden secrets that every character is carrying and, in most cases, the release of these secrets and the great freedom that comes from facing what they most fear. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this story, especially learning more about Nazi Germany from the perspective of a German living on the periphery of the party. I found the writing to be very honest and sincere, which could be painful at times to read given the hard and emotional topics discussed. However, the love and humanity that was also shown really helped cut through the bitter and left a feeling of triumph with a few emotional tears mixed in. The idea that you cannot run away from your past is clearly evident throughout and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves stories that meld history and the present and for anyone who just enjoys an emotionally touching story.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Broadway. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.