Thursday, June 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My most recent read is The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small farming and fishing village in Normandy in the time leading up to D-Day. The heroine is Emma, a young, talented baker, who learned her craft from a Jewish baker. "Uncle Ezra" was much beloved by the villagers, but they were powerless to help the day the occupying Germans shot him on a trumped-up charge.

Emma’s bread is discovered by the German commander occupying her town. He decrees she must make twelve baguettes per day for his table and he’ll give her the provisions to do so. It occurs to her to stretch the dough with ground straw so that she can make two extra loaves each day that she secretly distributes. As she gives away the bread, she learns the particular needs of her neighbors, as well as what each is able to provide in return. Slowly, she creates a network of exchange that helps undermine the German oppression and helps her neighbors to survive.

Emma is a wonderful protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She’s judgmental and holds grudges. But she’s also patient, intelligent, and good. She’s pragmatic, dealing with each day as it comes, refusing to indulge in the rather hopeless optimism of those who wait for the allies to liberate them. She also regularly confronts the village priest whose exhortations to attend mass and pray seem to her to fall short.

Other characters round out the village: Odette, the café owner who hides her knowledge of the German language and serves both villagers and enemies with black market goods; Guilhaume, the gentle, large-hearted veterinarian; the Monkey Boy, a cross between village idiot and idiot-savant; the Goat Boy (cruelly named by Emma), a rag-tag member of the resistance; Pierre, an old farmer, veteran of the Great War. There are also collaborators, the beautiful Michelle and the embittered, petty tyrant DuFour. While they are all types, they are also well-developed. Emma has compassion even for those she doesn’t like.

The French villagers have hunkered down in survival mode. Time grinds them down. The Germans, uniformly villainous, murder for the flimsiest of reasons. In this atmosphere of terror and deprivation, they wait for deliverance, doing what they can to support one another and the resistance.

The book has a slow build but then becomes impossible to put down.

WWII fiction is always compelling, but so depressing. Even though they often have uplifting messages and brave, compassionate protagonists, the good people are surrounded by ugliness and the worst examples of humanity. It can be painful to read. Nevertheless, The Baker’s Secret is well worth it.