By Sarah Guan
In her new release, “The Baker’s Daughter”, Sarah McCoy weaves together the stories of two very different women who, in attempting to outrun their pasts, end up in El Paso, Texas. Reba Adams is a lonely journalist whose latest assignment, a Christmas feature, leads her to Elsie’s German bakery. In researching her piece, she finds a kindred spirit in the proprietress, Elsie Schmidt, whose story began six decades previous in Germany as a teenaged girl under the oppressive rule of the Third Reich.
McCoy weaves together her two timelines in a manner reminiscent of the recent bestseller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford. Adding the narrative of the 16-year-old Elsie, as opposed to rendering her story as a series of oral recollections or flashbacks by her now elderly self in Texas, McCoy cleverly invites comparison between the two characters as young women. The reader experiences the horrors of the Nazi Germany as Elsie, the relatively sheltered daughter of a baker, comes of age and discovers a side of the regime she has suspected, but never known, to exist. Reba’s childhood is also profoundly shaped by the effects of war–her father is a Vietnam veteran suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The very different ghosts in their pasts draw the two women together and cause them to reveal to each other the deepest parts of themselves, those that they thought they had laid to rest.
“The Baker’s Daughter” is ultimately a story about courage in its myriad forms: the courage of one’s convictions, the strength necessary to survive amid pain and difficult choices and the capacity for forgiveness. McCoy’s novel, while squarely in the women’s fiction corner of historical fiction, is darker than the average feel-good, book club fare–as World War II stories generally are–and the extensive research evident throughout the story bolsters its grim realism, especially in Elsie’s timeline; the author unflinchingly tackles such difficult topics as Nazi eugenics and the Holocaust. She switches gears seamlessly, for the most part, portraying Reba’s much quieter personal demons with great emotional literacy.
The book falls short predominately in terms of technique, which is disappointing, as “The Baker’s Daughter” is not McCoy’s first published novel. She is a competent but not especially scintillating prose stylist; her third-person narration is smooth, but her first-person perspective, seen in “The Baker’s Daughter” in the form of letters between Elsie and her sister, Hazel, is stilted. The book’s pacing, too, leaves something to be desired (also stalling primarily during the epistolary scenes), though pacing a dual-timeline story is admittedly much more difficult than conventional novels.
“The Baker’s Daughter” is worth reading for enthusiasts of women’s or historical fiction. The critical genre components–including some of the most heart-rending parts of the story–are generally well-rendered. A more diverse readership, however, is likely to find it less satisfying than other books of its kind.