Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.
Quite a few books try to juxtapose two stories, past and present, but often one or the other of the segments doesn’t work out so well. Not so with this book: both are very satisfactory, and moreover each parallels the other as the story progresses, to create a synergistic enhancement of the whole.
The story from the past centers around 16-year-old Elsie Schmidt, the daughter in a family with a bakery in Garmisch, Germany at the time of World War II. Elsie has helped out in the bakery ever since her older sister, Hazel, left for Steinhoering to enter the Lebensborn Program.
[This project was founded by Heinrich Himmler in 1935, with the goal of increasing the number of racially “pure” children in Germany. Himmler’s idea was to encourage SS and army officers to “mate” with approved young women (i.e., blonde hair, blue eyes, and “pure” family lineage traceable back at least three generations). (You know, children who resembled the Aryan ideal of Hitler. Oh wait….) The children were then taken to nurseries, evaluated, and if they passed the test, they were given to SS families to raise. If not, they were eliminated. In The Baker’s Daughter, Hazel goes to the first Lebensborn home that was opened; eventually there were ten of them. In order to maximize the results, Himmler ordered all SS and police to father as many children as possible. Still, it wasn’t happening fast enough for Himmler. He then had the SS start kidnapping children from racially acceptable countries and transferring them to Lebensborn centers to be indoctrinated. If the children thus taken refused to cooperate, they were sent to extermination camps. (In 1946, it was estimated that more than 250,000 children were kidnapped from outside of Germany. After the war, only 25,000 were sent back to their families. In some cases, it was the children themselves who refused to go back, having been successfully converted by Nazi propaganda.)]
We get a taste of what Hazel goes through from her correspondence with Elsie. But of course she must be circumspect in her letters, and so the full horror of being a brood mare in this system of legalized rape was not fully developed. But readers are given enough information to imagine what it may have been like.
For Elsie, life is a bit better, but there is still the omnipresent threat of Nazis who are corrupt with power and the ability to eliminate those who stand in their way. One of these Nazis, Josef, nearly twice her age, asks her to marry him. He seems nicer than the others, though she doesn’t love him. On the other hand, she realizes that an engagement to him is a way to provide protection for herself and her family. But on Christmas Eve, 1944, suddenly everything changes.
In the present-day story, we meet Elsie 63 years later, running her own bakery in El Paso, Texas, along with her 45-year-old daughter Jane. Reba Adams, a local reporter, comes to the bakery to interview Elsie for a Christmas feature, and immediately bonds with Elsie and Jane. Reba is somewhat estranged from her own family, because of unresolved family traumas from her past. Her older sister Deedee urges her to stop judging: “let God be the judge.” She counsels:
“We have to stop being afraid of the shadows and realize that the world is made up of shades of gray, light and darkness. Can’t have one without the other.”
Reba’s inability to see gray extends to herself: she is so afraid of any darkness within her that she has constructed an artificial persona to face the world. Therefore she too, like Elsie once did, struggles with an engagement to be married. Her boyfriend Riki loves her, but Reba fears actually marrying him. The Reba that Riki knows is a lie. Would he still love her if he knew who she really was?
Riki has his own demons. He works for the Border Patrol in El Paso, and has to arrest and evict people who are only trying to survive. While not directly parallel to the case in World War II with Nazis arresting and evicting Jews, some of the same issues arise: when should the rule of law be forsaken in the name of decency? And if you don’t help to save others from injustice, will you lose yourself along with them?
Evaluation: As Seamus Heaney observed when he accepted the 1995 Nobel Prize, “…the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears.” He cautioned, “We are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances.” And yet, he goes on to say, humans are also capable of heroic virtue and redemption. Admirably, the author shows us both sides of the coin, giving us much to consider about our past as well as our present.
I’m so glad my husband was out of town when I finished this, so he couldn’t hear my banshee-like sobbing wailing noises. Get some Kleenex and read this one!
Note: There are a lot of fascinating issues for a book club to discuss, and you could even make treats for your meeting from some of the great recipes included in the back!
Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012