Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

Literature is filled with the horrific, the brave, and the heartbeaking stories of World War II. But it isn't often that the story being told is of a person and a family who spent years being compliant with and even lauding Hitler's vision of a new and improved Germany. In Sarah McCoy's fantastic novel, Elsie Schmidt and her family, the bakers of the title, are just these people and her portrayal of them takes the normal black and white morality and turns it into just about every permutation of grey possible. Life is not pure good versus pure evil, why should fiction be?

The novel opens with Reba Adams, a reporter in El Paso, Texas, trying to add more substance to her seasonal article about Christmas around the world by interviewing Elsie Schmidt, the owner of a popular German bakery in town. Reba is looking for something heartwarming and quotable but she finds Elsie reluctant to speak of Christmas in Germany where she was a teenager during the war. Elsie tells Reba that her memories of Christmas are not typical because of the war's deprivations and she is loathe to tell the full story of her last "crappy" Christmas in Germany before marrying an American soldier. Reba perseveres and when she discovers that her new friend Elsie had once been engaged to a Nazi officer, she is appalled, sharing her disbelief with her own fiance Riki, a strictly by the book Border Patrol agent who is starting to view his own job differently.

Reba's life, her reluctance to set a date with Riki, her desire for a bigger, better job in a more vibrant city, and her family baggage alternates with Elsie's wartime letters to her older sister, one of the chosen, young, Aryan women who were a part of the Lebensborn program and supposed to bear children for the Reich. The biggest portion of the narrative though, is that of Elsie's life during 1944 and 1945 when Germany is fighting a losing battle and its people were scrambling for survival. It was then that Elsie, after attending a Christmas party for Nazi officers, is engaged, albeit reluctantly, to Lieutenant Colonel Josef Hub. It is also that Christmas that a young Jewish boy, the gifted singer at the Christmas party, escapes from his escort back to the camps and begs Elsie to hide him in return for the favor he did her earlier in the evening. Suddenly this family who has given one daughter to the cause and who relies on their connection to the Nazis in order to keep their bakery afloat is harboring an escaped Jew although that is unbeknownst to all but Elsie.

The conflicts that Elsie and Reba feel in their heart of hearts, and in fact the creeping uncertainty that all of the major and minor characters come to feel about the policies under which they live and which they have vowed to uphold, are enormous and difficult. Elsie, despite her own initial Nazi sympathies, is a wonderful and sympathetic character and her ultimate Solomonic decision is the struggle you'd expect but completely in keeping with her character. Reba is a bit harder to understand although as her family history and the demons she's running from come out, this lessens. The historical portion of the novel is fascinating and the parallel between the Nazis and the immigration war is subtle. McCoy is not implying that the one is anywhere close to as reprehensible as the other but through her characters, she points out the moral ambiguity that surrounds any situation that might at first glance appear cut and dried. The book is well written and engaging and I found myself unable to put it down once I was fully invested in the story. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this slightly different perspective while book club readers will find many topics to consider in their discussions.

For more information about Sarah McCoy and the book visit her webpage, her blog, Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I really enjoyed this book and like you, I felt that the historical portions were strongest. I wish McCoy had told us more about Elsie's sister and the Lebensborn programme...

  2. I thought this one was unputdownable, too! Loved it! Great review.

  3. I don't think I've ever read a book told from this type of perspective - it sounds like it would make me consider things from a totally different angle.

    I'm glad you enjoy it as much as you did. Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  4. I'm excited to read this one. I've read many positive reviews.


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