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Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: 'The Baker's Daughter'

By Sarah M. McCoy
Literary Fiction
January 2012
ISBN: 978-0307460189                                      

Families and dual storylines are getting to be rather common in popular and literary fiction these days. Both are important factors of an uncommonly good novel -- Sarah M. McCoy's The Baker's Daughter.

The novel is more than one story and, indeed, it's even possible to make the case that more than one character is the baker's daughter. There is the obvious one -- Elsie is the daughter of a baker in a small German town where everyone struggles to survive as the Nazis gain power and as the war drags on. There also is Elsie's daughter, Jane, who works alongside her mother in a small town German bakery in Texas. And then there is a daughter of Elsie's heart, Reba, who comes to the bakery for what she thinks will be a quick interview about holiday traditions. Instead, Jane and Elsie befriend a woman who has closed off her heart, even with love from family and a good man staring her in the face.

Young Elsie is the salt of the earth that leavens good bread. She is quiet yet not passive. She misses her sister, who is in a Nazi compound set up for Aryan breeding mares (the Lebensborn Program really existed). Her life is like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale told from the viewpoint of proud family members boasting of their daughter's fate, not realizing until far too late what horrors and ruthless cruelty are there. In a grotesque pastiche of a whirlwind, fairy tale romance, a Nazi officer bestows his ring on Elsie, and this protects Elsie and her family. Josef is acting out of guilt from Kristallnacht. Elsie realizes she has to use the gift of his protection even as she feels guilt for not loving him.

Elsie does something far braver when fate presents the opportunity to do so. It's an impulsive move, but she shows true strength in perservering with the consequences of her act.

In the present time, Reba also is separated from her sister, but it's a voluntary move. Their father was haunted by what he did in Vietnam, and Reba discovers exactly how haunting what he did was. The parallel with the German officer's guilt is but one of many parallels in the novel. None of the acts or characters are exact matches, but they do offer varying perspectives on such big ideas as honor, duty and fealty. Reba leaves her home because she wants to leave behind the hurt, although her sister continues to reach out to her.

Another man has guilt over what he once believed in. Reba's fiancee is a border agent. As an American citizen who is Hispanic, Riki believes he is doing the right thing by finding and helping deport people back across the U.S.-Mexican border. Until a young boy grabs his heart.

The Baker's Daughter is written with a light touch about drastic events that really happened or could have happened. People's lives are altered forever in seconds. People try to do the right thing. They feel guilt. They feel sorrow. Their paths, decades apart, show similar trajectories about the big ideas without making direct comparisons. The border patrol agents, for instance, is not likened to S.S. officers. But the reader knows that the actions dictated by both jobs can lead to similar misery for the people they hunt, that families can be torn apart and that tragedy can occur.

It is this ability to show how history repeats itself in the way people are treated, the way they are condemned not because of who they are but because of what they represent to those with the power, and the ability to let readers draw their own conclusions about individual characters and how their choices can work in with or challenge the power structure, that demonstrate lasting power of McCoy's novel.

There is much sweetness and coming together in the novel. There are touching moments and characters doing the right thing by others. There are the sins of the past to be mourned. But underneath that are the movements of society in how people in power treat those without any.

So enjoy the food descriptions -- which are rendered with loving care by someone who obviously knows her way around a kitchen, and be moved by the journey of the various bakers' daughters. But also let the bigger questions move you.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

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