Book Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
My friend handed me this book, knowing I’m obsessed with anything bread related. I’m also a huge WWII fiction fan, so this book couldn’t be more perfect for me.
June 5, 1944, on the Normandy coast of France…
“In the dark days since the Germans invaded her country…Emma has silently, stealthily fought back. Each day, she receives an extra ration of flour to bake a dozen baguettes for the occupying troops. And each day, she mixes that precious flour with ground straw to create enough dough for two extra loaves, contraband bread that she shares with the hungry villagers. Under the cold, watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she builds a clandestine network of barter and trade that she and the villagers use to thwart their occupiers. But her gift to the village is more than these few crusty loaves. Emma gives the people a taste of hope—and the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.”
The cover’s description misleads the reader into thinking Emma is a rebel agent bent on destroying the enemy, striving for freedom. In reality, she is no rebel, and she certainly isn’t hopeful. She scoffs at God and insists the Allies will never come. Despite her pessimism, she is a captivating character, a survivor, driven by the need to take care of her grandmother, and by extension, the entire village. Without planning or even volunteering, she becomes the lifeline of the village. Toward the end, she remarks, “If you want to know your worth in this world, make a list of the people who will starve when you die.” (pg. 242). I appreciated her stalwart determination to keep going, a brilliant demonstration of the strength it takes just to get through another day of war.
The other characters are expected for a small town: fishermen, farmers, clergy men, etc. The author describes each character with great realism. Each develops his or her own attitude towards the war—from acclimation to outright rebellion. Even the occupying soldiers encompass a variety of personalities and behaviors.
The plot encompasses a short time period. It reminds me a bit of the show 24, where every hour-long episode was a literal hour in the character’s life. Emma gradually assumes more responsibility as the pressures of war starves her village. You can feel the weight of the occupation, how it slows every second to a grind. The interactions between the villagers, their different strategies for survival, and the constant threat of the occupying soldiers keep the tension strong despite the slower pace.
This is, above all else, a sensual book. The smells, tastes, sounds, and textures are so vividly described, I could practically taste the sawdust and hear the machine gun fire. The prose is detailed, but flowing, styled such that the reader empathizes with Emma’s pessimism.
The story stems mostly from Emma’s perspective, but the author slips into the other villagers’ heads often, and he doesn’t always signal the shift well. If I had one criticism, it would be that.
The cover’s description is deceiving. Emma’s perspective is one of consistent pessimism, and the plot moves at a slow grind that reflects the experience of the occupation. However, the incredible sensory details, realistic characters, and unique interactions between the villagers and between the villagers and the occupying soldiers keep the story engaging. Despite Emma’s pessimism, the book ends with hope, though it doesn’t downplay the horrors of war. I enjoyed this book, and not just because it’s about a baker.
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