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An international bestseller and Best Book of 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee!
In this New York Times bestseller, two women in different eras face similar life-altering decisions, the politics of exclusion, the terrible choices we face in wartime, and the redemptive power of love.
In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger.
Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine, and she sits down with the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery for what she expects will be an easy interview. But Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story—a story that resonates with her own turbulent past. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of that last bleak year of World War II.
As the two women’s lives become intertwined, both are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
“Replete with raw emotion and suspense, The Baker’s Daughter is a fascinating journey through a horrifying time in world history that will resonate long after you close the book.” —Historical Novel Society
“A beautiful, heart-breaking gem of a novel written just the way I like them, with the past coming back to haunt the present, endearing heroines and a sunny, hopeful ending. You’ll wolf it up in one delicious gulp.” —Tatiana de Rosnay, international bestselling author of Sarah’s Key and A Secret Kept
“The Baker’s Daughter was a constant warm companion to me during cross-country travels, a novel I looked forward to returning to night after night. The rare book in which the modern-day story is as compelling as the wartime tale it contains, The Baker’s Daughter offers a look at Nazi Germany through the lens of the immigration issues of our own time. El Paso, TX and Garmisch, Germany make for an unexpected harmony of flavors.” —Jenna Blum, international bestselling author of The Stormchasers and Those Who Save Us
“A sensitive, multilayered novel, this is a moving examination of the effect war and the politics of exclusion, have on the human heart.” —Amanda Hodgkinson, New York Times bestselling author of 22 Brittania Road
“A haunting and beautiful story… Spanning sixty years, and taking on forms of human cruelty and indifference ranging from the Nazis to modern-day immigration reform, McCoy forces us to examine the choices we make. I was riveted from start to finish.” —Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Commencement and Maine
“This is a beautifully told, richly detailed story that grabs your heart from page one and keeps its hold long after the last page. It is a book to discuss, to share and ultimately to savor.” —Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March
“Elsie Schmidt is the brave and unforgettable heroine of Sarah McCoy’s beautifully written tale of family, friendship, and love. The Baker’s Daughter demonstrates how the past can teach us—if only we will listen.” —Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
“Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter explores what happens when our loyalties (to country, cause, family, religion) clash with our intuition. A complex braiding of mystery, history, and personality, this novel is engaging and wonderful.” —Sheri Reynolds, New York Times bestselling author of The Rapture of Canaan
Lisa: The novel moves back and forth between two vastly different settings: present-day America on the Tex-Mex border and Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. What inspired you to pair the two?
Sarah: It does seem obscure, and that’s why I found their association so captivating. I spent a portion of my childhood in Germany where my dad, a career military officer, was stationed. My husband also grew up in Germany, speaks fluent German, and worked there during his summers in college. When we moved to El Paso, the local magazine asked me to write a feature article on the German community. “There’s a German community?” I asked. Yes—a thriving one. Way out on the corner of Texas, barely clinging to the edge of the United States, is a sizable German air force base. Apparently the Luftwaffe has trained fliers in the United States since 1958. In 1992, they consolidated their troops at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, just up the road from El Paso.
Not long after that article ran, I went to a local farmer’s market and met an 80-year-old German woman selling bread. I was completely smitten by her, and all that I imagined she might have experienced in her life. While picking out my brötchen, I asked how she came to be in El Paso. “I married an American soldier after the war,” she told me. Voila! Elsie, my 1945 protagonist, was born. My memories of living and traveling in Germany served as my imaginative landscape and fueled my hunger to research the country and its people during those last awful months of World War.
Teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, many of my students wrote about their fear and anxiety regarding the deportation of family and friends. I imagined many in Germany (Aryan, Jewish, etc.) felt similarly.
Lisa: There’s a great deal of research that went into both storylines. Did anything surprise you?
Sarah: I was shocked and surprised at nearly every document about Germany and El Paso. I’d yell to my husband, Oh my God! Did you know… And despite living and working in Germany for years, despite living and working in El Paso now, he never once answered yes. Of course the research into Nazi Germany unearthed deeply disturbing facts. The Lebensborn Program, for one, took me months to emotionally process. I searched for every opportunity to disprove its existence. I didn’t want to believe. Then I realized that disbelief, unwillingness to confront the truth and take a stand, was a similar reaction to many German citizens. It was so unfathomable that it pained the soul. Not possible, I said. How could any human being do such things? Instead of pushing it away, I tried to harness that response and use it to shed light on dark secrets.
The same was true of our present-day border issues. Living within a mile of Juarez, Mexico, I’ve witnessed firsthand the dire struggle of illegal families. I see it on the news, at the grocery store, in my neighborhood. I felt it incumbent on me to speak—to tell the story and share what I’ve seen.
Lisa: So we have two women protagonists: Reba in present day and Elsie in the past. Which perspective did you find was the easiest to write? Which was the most difficult?
Sarah: The leading female characters came pretty organically to my imagination. The Josef chapters were the most psychologically taxing. I had to take all the historical information I’d gathered about the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and the horrors of the Nazi regime and flip my psyche—try to imagine it from the perspective of someone within. I had to remind myself that these weren’t barbarous demons; these were men. They knew right from wrong, just as we all do. They weren’t beyond human compassion. So then, I asked myself, how could they? Or, in this specific case, how could Josef rationalize and live with his actions. As the author, I had a responsibility to present his perspective without my own emotional judgments. That was difficult, but I believe those dark chapters are essential to the book. It’s important to remember the innocent as well as the evil—so that we can immediately recognize the latter if we see it again.
Lisa: Familial relationships play a significant role in the novel, specifically daughterhood. There are many similarities and some stark differences between how Reba and Elsie appear as daughters in the novel. Do you think that’s a product of culture or time or more?
Sarah: All of the above. The dynamic between mothers and daughters—women of varying generations—seems to be a reoccurring theme in my writing. Each new generation believes it is more advanced than its predecessor. However, history has proven to be a gigantic record spinning round on different threads but in the same motion. Our lives overlap whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Both Reba and Elsie struggle to find themselves, to establish their own beliefs and make choices in alternate environments. Their places on earth may differ, but their journey is the same. The deep love and deep conflicts of daughterhood are undeniable. We accept, forgive, and learn from our mothers or we reject, condemn, and disregard. That choice is mirrored on the large-scale, too—in how we act as a people, as nations.
Lisa: I think this novel would work wonderfully for book clubs. What issues do you imagine readers discussing after they turn the last page?
Sarah: Oh, there are so many—love, forgiveness, exclusion, passivity, family dynamics, independence, courage and cowardice, and the list goes on. But mostly, after turning the last page, I hope all the issues in the novel penetrate and resonate in readers’ hearts and minds, thereby paying tribute to the memory of those who lived through those war-torn years and honoring the men, women, and families going through them now. I hope this book is a powerful illustration of just how influential one convicted person can be in changing the world—for good and for evil. All of history can be altered. If each of us took up the cause of good, imagine what we could do individually and together.
Lisa: And lastly, because I know readers will be wondering based on your title, do you have any recipes you regularly bake at home? You’ve taken us into The Baker’s Daughter’s kitchen, would you mind giving us a glimpse into your own?
Sarah: I’d love to! I greatly enjoy baking and cooking. I try to do it as often as possible. There’s something therapeutic in the culinary process. To me, recipes are like prescriptions. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious or simply need a mental reprieve, I head to the kitchen. I like to cook alone. I know this is different from many, but it’s a Zen space for me. I don’t have to talk or think too much. I can dream while I measure, crack, whisk, and pour. So long as I follow the instructions, I have guaranteed success. Baking satisfies all of my tactile senses: colors, textures, tastes, sounds, and smells. In under two hours, I’ve created something start to finish. It’s an instant gratification achievement.
That was a long-winded answer to the question: what do you bake? On a weekly basis, I bake a lot of savory dishes, but I love the holiday season when I get to try interesting, new sweet ones. Personally, I’m easy to please. The smell of almonds, sea salted and cinnamon sprinkled, roasting in the oven is just about the ultimate for me. However, my mom bakes a lean, mean peanut butter chocolate kiss cookie that my husband calls “the best cookie in the history of mankind.” As her daughter, I have the recipe. It’s a family tradition.
Note: This Q&A is also available as Amazon featured content.
The discussion questions and list of book club activities are intended to enrich your reading group’s conversation about The Baker’s Daughter, Sarah McCoy’s absorbing and compelling new novel. In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel―as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading The Baker’s Daughter, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.
The epigraph pairs two quotes; the first is from Mark Twain. The second is from Robert Frost’s poem “The Trial by Existence.” Why do you think McCoy put these quotes together? Which characters do you believe they reference?
• The concept of baking, sharing and passing on recipes is woven throughout the book. What are a couple of your favorite family recipes? Have you shared those with your children and/or friends? How have recipes played a part in your own childhood and adult life?
• Epistolary storytelling in the form of letter writing is a vital way the characters directly communicate with one another and express many of their innermost feelings. Do you have friends or family members with whom you frequently exchange letters, cards, or emails, though you rarely see them in person or talk on the phone? If so, do you find yourself being more or less open in those written communications?
• Reba is continuously reinventing herself, trying on new personalities and fictitious lives. Why does she engage in this behavior? Why does she think running away from her family’s problems will help her achieve a new beginning? How do you believe discovering Elsie’s story changed Reba?
• Considering Elsie’s true feelings for Josef, why does she take his gifts, accompany him to the ball, accept his proposal and wear his ring? Why does she pretend to be engaged to him? Do her circumstances make her betrayal right? If you were in her position, what would you have done?
• When Reba finds her daddy’s therapy notes, she wishes she had never read them. She wants to remember him differently. She doesn’t want to believe that the facts are true. Have you ever felt this way about something? Looking back, do you feel remorse or gratitude for the decision you made regarding it?
• Both Elsie and Reba are confronted with the issue of blind obedience. At what point must we question the governing regulations? At what point must we act on our own convictions? Is this a slippery slope?
• Though generations apart, Elsie and Reba are both empowered women. How does this manifest in Elsie’s story? In Reba’s? How does McCoy depict gender roles? How do all the women characters claim or reclaim their power (Mutti, Hazel, Frau Rattelmüller, Jane, Deedee, Reba’s momma, Lillian, etc.)?
• Does Josef’s personal suffering justify his public actions? Do you sympathize with Josef’s struggle between duty to country and his individual feelings? Why or why not? Similarly, how does Riki justify his daily work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection? Have you ever participated in something you didn’t believe in?
• Collective ownership is a central tenet of the Lebensborn Program. What might you see are positive attributes of communal living? What are the negative? Discuss the importance of personal identity and/or possession to Elsie and society as a whole.
• Do you believe Mutti was right to keep Frau Rattelmüller’s letters from Elsie? Discuss her motivations and the possible outcomes if she hadn’t kept the secret.
• In the Epilogue, Jane gives Reba a recipe cookbook in honor of her “setting a wedding date.” Do you think they followed through? Where do you think Riki and Reba are today?
Book Club Activities
• Ask each book club member to bring a family recipe for a book club recipe swap or a prepared dish for a potluck of family foods. Go around the group sharing the history of each dish/recipe.
• Pull out pretty stationery or a lovely card and write an old friend. Say anything that comes to mind as if he or she were sitting beside you and see what comes to the page. Mail it as a surprise to that individual.
• Elsie and Hazel watched Jean Harlow’s Libeled Lady (1936) as girls. Consider renting the film and hosting a movie night with your book club. How do you see the female starlets resonating in Elsie? How would you cast The Baker’s Daughter as a movie?
• Have a baking party using Elsie’s German recipes from the novel’s Epilogue. Pick one as the theme (say, a Lebkuchen Bake-off) or try them all.