The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
Published by: William Morrow
Publish Date: May 2, 2017
Genre(s): historical fiction, fiction, historical, war, World War II, France
HB&W Rating: 4 Stars
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If you want to know your worth in this world, make a list of the people who will starve when you die.
The year is 1944, during the German occupation of the small fictional French town of Vergers on the Normandy coast. It is here that we meet Emmanuelle, rising before the dawn each day to make fourteen loaves of bread out of the flour rations for twelve, using finely ground straw to supplement the flour. Through the use of flashbacks, Emma’s story plays out. From a young girl who enjoys the simple pleasures of good food, the tender touch of her first love, and the comfort of her family and friends in her small village, to the brave and resolute woman who under the nose of the German army devises a system of barters and exchanges to aid the survival of her friends and neighbors. We watch as eggs are exchanged for gasoline to provide for the town fisherman to take his boat out for a second catch each day, as tobacco is exchanged for a lightbulb, and on and on. Emma’s cunning and tenacity provides not only food for her fellow villagers, but also hope.
The story unfolds in a kaleidoscopic way, the scenes changing and shifting in the snippets of other characters’ points of view to provide depth to the overall story of Emma and the town of Vergers. Typically, I’m not a fan of multiple points of view, and while it takes a little getting used to, jumping around so much from one character to another, from past to present, I felt like the book had an almost cinematic fade in / out of scenes that actually aided in rounding out the over-arching story of the town. Because while Emma is the main character, it’s not just her story; it is the town’s story. The supporting characters were developed only as much as it would add benefit to the rest of the story, and I thought this was very well done.
I also found that there was a lot of humor in the book, as much as could be found in a war story. I think that speaks to the fact that even when things are bleak, we humans seek out joy in the most unlikely of places as a means of coping. Emma has a sharp and gritty humor about her, most prevalent in the scenes with the rooster, Pirate, and I feel that it perfectly suits her rough-around-the-edges personality. The scene where she stealthily breeds the pastor’s chickens with her rooster in the long-term plan to have chickens of her own that would produce fresh eggs, had me laughing.
Pirate woke from his slumber atop the hog shed. Cawing, crowing, a rumpus of feathers and strutting, he swooped down, and proceeded to plunder the surprised hen with the vigor of the long deprived and innately unconscienced….Pirate became intolerable, his aggression and arrogance evidenced by crowing at all hours of the day, greater verve when harassing Captain Thalheim, and a peacocking stiffness to his walk that in a human might be considered swagger.
Emma also exhibits a grim acceptance of the occupation but with a type of subversive defiance that tells us she’s not going down without a fight. She minces no words in telling her fellow neighbors and villagers that she doesn’t believe anyone is coming to save them, and that to believe otherwise is futile and stupid. Emma holds no hope for anything better than life as they now know it, and that all that is left to do is eek out each day until no days are left for them. But however much she denies hope exists, it is what Emma delivers nonetheless, when she takes it upon herself to save as many people as she can. She is resilient, resourceful, daring and smart, fighting back against the enemy in any way she can.
She considered silence to be an eloquent form of rebellion.
This story is one among many WWII novels that have become increasingly popular to date, and while I would not say that it is on the same level as some of the others I’ve read (The Nightingale, All The Light We Cannot See), it is still an intimate look at humanity, the line between good and evil and the gray area between. There are moments of beautiful prose hidden in this story as well, tipping towards the philosophical.
We are as temporary as clouds…Lovely and high and sunlit, then gone on the next wind to some other place and shape.
All in all, it is a solid storyline, set against a well-known narrative with a notorious enemy, with grit and substance and even some wry humor thrown in. I wish we would have had some sort of epilogue, but in my mind, Emma lives out the rest of her days in peace, baking once more for the pleasure of it.
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