Of Germans, Immigrants and Bread

I don’t normally pick up this genre to read, but something about The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy intrigued me. The premise is simple enough. Journalist Reba shows up to interview the owner of the local German bakery, Elsie. Turns out German-born Elsie came to the U.S. after World War II and the book follows two story threads: Elsie’s life in Germany during the War, and Reba’s life and its intersecting with the older Elsie in modern day Texas.

The World War II connection caught my attention, as that is an era of history I often study. Usually it’s framed as Allies vs. Nazis and the people living in Germany are forgotten. I’ve discussed here before that the Germans were not unlike us, which makes the rise of Nazi terror all the more frightening. But not all the Germans were Nazis. Not all supported them. As the war progressed, many began to question their leadership as their country was being destroyed. They began to see what those leaders really were. Yet their ability to revolt had been been squashed by terror and Hitler confiscating weapons years before. The thread of Elsie’s story gives a window into this world. It’s fictional, but McCoy gives enough detail of that world to make it seem real. This is a perspective rarely taken and, in some ways, reminds me of the film The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

This isn’t a heavy-handed book and it gives the thoughtful reader much to ponder. Could the German citizens have done more? Were the decisions they made to survive always the right one? How does war change a person? Is war a reason, or an excuse, to do things one would never do before or again?

[Some spoilers here.] In the story, Elsie hides a Jewish boy from being taken and most likely killed. She is also is concerned about the fate of her sister and her children. The sister is part of the Lebensborn program to breed Aryan children, the one boy is missing, taken by the Nazis. The sister also has vanished. Later, after being raped by a German officer, Elsie becomes pregnant and decides to terminate the baby. It seems a quick decision for someone surrounded by death and potential death. I don’t know the intent of the author, but this is where those questions above come into play. It’s an interesting contrast to be trying to save and take lives at the same time. War does these things to people. And this obviously leads into the issue of terminating life after rape, which most all of us have said is okay. Though once I heard someone ask, “Why is that life any different than any other?” It’s one of those difficult questions no one wants to ask, let alone think about. This, however, is only one point in a book with much to think about.

In the present day, Reba is boyfriend works for the border patrol. He tries to uphold the law, but sees people truly looking for a better life being caught between to extremes: People who want the borders open and little access and those who want it locked down. Again, I don’t know McCoy’s exact position, but she mostly cuts a path that will make a thoughtful reader look at the issue a little closer. I’m sure zealots on either side wished she would take some clear, emotional stance, but then it wouldn’t be an intelligent story. Perhaps people will stop listening to the talking heads and politicians only interested in holding on to power. We can’t have Mad Max at the borders or have instant amnesty for all, but we are a country built on immigration and those who truly want to come here for a better life and become Americans.

Ironicly, this takes place in the El Paso area, which is the region where German scientists after the War were first spirited to before working on various military and NASA programs. Some were Nazis who had their pasts scrubbed at the same time other, less useful Nazis, were being hunted down. Again, the question of does war justify such contradictions? If it does, does it always and when?

Sarah McCoy has written a story that I didn’t feel was trying to thump out an agenda like many writers do. Instead, she created a fascinating story that touched various issues and ideas that an insightful reader will appreciate. Of course, not all readers will arrive at the same place as each other or the author in their conclusions. That’s fine, as long as you are thinking. A good book should entertain and make you think. This one does both.

And did I mention this is all against the backdrop of baking? You will have the unmistakable desire for artisan breads or homemade pastries while reading this book. Perhaps the return of the local bakery is another fine point to take away from this read. We will look forward to more from Sarah.

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