You've already read, were planning to read, already own, or are planning to buy multiple copies of Sarah McCoy's The Baker's Daughter, right? Let me tell you right now, this novel is one of my recent favorites. I loved the characters, the settings, and especially the rhythms and aromas of the bakeries.
Just in case you've missed the premise of Sarah's new novel, here's part of the publisher's summary:
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 in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger.In honor of the recent release of The Baker's Daughter and in keeping with a Thursday tradition here at Beth Fish Reads, I've invited Sarah over for a chat and tea party. We both baked plenty of goodies, so I hope you'll pull up a chair, pour yourself a mug of tea, grab a pastry, and join in the fun.
Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine. . . . [Her] latest assignment has brought her to the shop of an elderly baker across town. The interview should take a few hours at most, but the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery is no easy subject. . . . As Elsie [and] Reba's . . . lives become more intertwined, [they] are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
Beth Fish Reads: Welcome to Beth Fish Reads, Sarah. Sit right down and we'll have a little something to nibble on while we sip our peppermint tea, just like Reba (p. 74).
Sarah McCoy: Why thank you, Candace, I do fancy a good cup of tea and nibbles.
BFR: There are so many aspects of your wonderful The Baker's Daughter that I want to talk about, I'm not sure where to start. Your characters were very real to me, not just Reba and Elsie but also their families and friends. One thing that struck me was that, although the two women came of age in very different times and a half a world away from each other, they are quite similar. They're both survivors, neither is afraid of hard work, and they're both people who question. Did you grow up in an atmosphere that encouraged you to question your government, your parents, and the general beliefs of society?
SM: First off, I’m thrilled the characters spoke to you and you identified so strongly with them. They are quite real to me, too. It’s as if we’re chatting about mutual friends, not just characters in a novel.
Now, to your very good question about my own upbringing: I didn’t necessarily grow up in an atmosphere that encouraged questioning of authority. In fact, one might even say the opposite was true. I am the daughter of a career Army officer. So authority was always championed and honored. We lived on a military post for years where to enter the installation, you had to show your military ID to guards with rifles slung across their chest. “Authority” wasn’t an idea to be question. It was tangible in my everyday reality. All that being said, my parents are also very spiritual and raised us to believe that there is a greater power than any human or governing precedent. There is the law of man and there is the law of goodness and love. They often go hand-in-hand, but we were taught by example that if a disparity ever arose, the latter always trumped the former. So I guess my answer is yes and no. I grew up in a home where I was encouraged to respect the world’s laws but be accountable to more.
BFR: I think that's a great way to be: respectful but not a lemming.
Although I lived in northern Arizona for a few years in the 1970s, I was oblivious to illegal immigration issues. I don't know if that's from my own self-absorption or if Mexican immigration took a backseat to Watergate and the gas crisis, headline news of the day. Of course immigration is at the top of political rhetoric these days, but it doesn't affect my daily life here in central Pennsylvania. Are the issues of illegal border crossings a constant in your life in El Paso? Do people talk about U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and policies or is it too divisive to bring up in casual conversation?
SM: Oh, no, it’s as normal as apple pie—or I guess churros might be a better analogy. There’s a Border Protection truck that drives along the irrigation ditch behind my house at least once a week. I’ve almost taken to waving to him. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is simply a part of the landscape here. Watching some of the evening news (CNN, Fox or what have you), it seems the gentlefolk in Washington, D.C. get more riled up about the topic than most borderland (El Paso–Juarez) residents. For us, we’re just neighbors—just people trying to get by day to day, make a living, feed our families, take the kids to school, get cough medicine for relatives, pay for gas . . . same as folks in Pennsylvania, I’m sure.
Most of the billboards on El Paso’s Interstate-10 are in Spanish and if you stop at a fast-food restaurant, you’ll probably have more trouble ordering in English than if you habla español. The fact that so-in-so three doors down is from Mexico is . . . well, not really any of my business. Is he here legally? Hope so, for his sake. But what if he isn’t? Well, then I bet he’s more worried about it than we, his neighbors, are. The lines are blurred between cultural and national identities, and it’s all too difficult to tell.
So that might not sound very politically correct, and I’m praying I don’t get hammered for it, but my book isn’t about politics. I’m no politician, and it’d be my personal nightmare to step a toe into the political realm. It’s not my calling. I write fiction. I write through the eyes of characters and simply relay their perspective. That’s the beauty of books. They are for you, the readers, to interpret as relevant or not, based on your own beliefs. For me, the pain and needless suffering of people entangled in this illegal immigration “issue” is what weighs on my conscience and keeps me up at night. But again, that’s my subjective response.
BFR: Oh I totally understand what you mean about separating fiction and what your characters say and do from your personal life. How crazy it'd be to think that every issue brought up in a novel was part of the author's own agenda. But The Baker's Daughter certainly made me think.
You spent at least part of your childhood in Germany but consider Virginia your home and now live in Texas; The Baker's Daughter has roots in all three locations. In addition, you have strong ties to the military thanks to your father and husband. One principal theme in your novel is the conflict some characters have between their personal beliefs and obeying the laws of their country and doing their duty. Others blindly accept what their government tells them, and still others hold strict to their own sense of human rights, despite personal danger. Among the obvious differences between being an officer in Hitler's Germany and being a USCBP officer today is the idea of choice. How did your personal experiences in Germany and Texas help inform those differences between Josef and Riki?
SM: I’ll be honest, all of my memories and experiences in Germany are rimmed in sugar crystals. However, history clearly portrays a bitter and sinister alter ego. So I suppose I was much like all of my characters—torn between feeling and fact as I wrote the novel. Having spent a good amount of time in the German community, I’ve experienced the jovial, beloved aspects of their culture and seen glimpses of the dark side. But then . . . isn’t that true of us all? The same goes for the Tex–Mex border. On one side of the line, there’s fancy boots, barbeque, and “everything is bigger in Texas,” while on the other, people live in shanties, burn their trash to stay warm in the winter and collapse from heat and hunger in the summer.
It makes you slap your forehead. Because it’s a line. Yes, a very important line but a line nonetheless. And those are people over there—breathing, feeling, hurting, loving, and dreaming. What their birth certificates state as nationality has no bearing on the worth of their lives. Only their legacies and God can make that proclamation. Here again, however, is where I’m reminded that these are my personal beliefs. Part of the greatness of our nation is that we are afforded the right to those without penalty—that wasn’t the case for citizens in WWII Germany.
BFR: It's so easy to forget that when talk about a huge historical or political event that we're talking about individuals. And each person is different and has different fears and motivations. You can't paint a whole nation with one brush.
I'm curious about the German attitude toward U.S. soldiers at the end of the war. In France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, Allied forces were cheered and citizens opened their hearts and homes to their liberators. In Germany, of course, things were different. Citizens didn't know what to expect from either the foreigners or their own desperate military, who knew they would soon be forced to justify their actions. Elsie, for a number of reasons, saw the U.S. soldiers as her personal liberators. Not everyone in her household had the same attitude. In The Baker's Daughter the GIs were respectful of the Schmidt family's bakery, and the soldiers were friendly with the townspeople. Was that common throughout Germany or were there generally more hostilities on both sides?
SM: This is where I had to rely on the documents and stories told by survivors aided by my imagination. Of course there was much hostility on both sides and many accounts of some U.S. soldiers being terribly harsh to the German people, which, to a certain degree, is understandable. I very much doubt I would be smiling and befriending townspeople after A) we just took their country by military force and B) I was made aware of the Jewish atrocities. No, ma’am. That would be extremely difficult. However, over and over, I heard accounts of U.S. soldiers not just befriending but falling in love and marrying Germans.
This, in fact, is what incited Elsie’s narrative. I was at a German Christkindlmarkt and purchased a loaf of Stollen from an elderly German woman. In casual conversation as I fished dollar bills out of my purse, I asked how and when she came “all the way out here” to El Paso. She said she married an American soldier just after the war and moved with him. It was as if lightning struck and branded me with Elsie’s entire story. I took up my German bread, left the bazaar, and never saw her again. Yet I see her every time I pick up a copy of The Baker’s Daughter. She is very much a part of Elsie’s spirit.
Hmm . . . I’m not sure if that directly answered your original question, but I hope it spoke to it somewhat.
BFR: Ha! This is conversation, not a pop quiz, you can talk about whatever you want. I have had several friends who have German mothers. They, like Elsie, fell in love with a U.S. soldier and made a new life in America. How difficult that must have been for them, just like for Elsie.
I know you like to cook and bake. Now that you live in the United States again, do you still miss European breads and baked goods? What is with Americans? Why isn't there a fabulous bakery and coffee shop (I'm not talking about national chains or cupcake shops) on every corner? The thing I miss most about Europe and the U.K. and about not living in a U.S. city with major ethnic enclaves is the family-owned bakery with the glass cases full of beautiful pastries, tarts, croissants, buns, crusty breads, and . . . well you get the picture. Is there such a bakery in El Paso or is Elsie's German Bakery just a dream?
SM: Amen, amen, amen! Bakeries in Europe are like 7/11s here—there’s one on every corner! Little mom and pop shops selling homemade breads with a cup of coffee or tea. As you pointed out, they aren’t simply in major metropolitan areas like our Au Bon Pains or Starbucks shops. They’re nestled into the neighborhoods—residential homes and businesses overlapping— so that whole streets smells like heaven. Usually there’s a meat and cheese shop next door. It’s like that nursery rhyme: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. And they’ve all been neighbors for generations. It’s magical.
I happened to have the opportunity to experience this kind of setting at the beginning of my marriage. My husband and I lived in an apartment above a mother and daughter-run bakery in Norfolk, Virginia. Particularly on rainy days, they’d bake up a storm and our whole apartment smelled of cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and butter. No need for a scented candle! It was delicious. So I certainly used those memories to conjure the sensory descriptions.
In El Paso, we have a handful of lovely bakeries that I’ve frequented on occasion. Many of them are Mexican and bake the most unique confections I’ve ever seen. Of course, there are German bakeries. That’s where I cultivated Reba’s storyline. When I first moved to El Paso, I was asked to write a feature article for the city magazine about the German community. I went to Marina’s German Bakery to interview the staff, poke around the kitchen, meet the owner, Herr Michael Groemling, and chat with faithful patrons. I also took home quite a bit of brötchen, sesame see rolls, farmer’s bread and other items. My husband thought he’d died and gone back to Garmisch.
BFR: Oh no! I feel the need to get baking. I bet it was wonderful to live above a bakery. Sigh . . . Oh, yeah, let me ask you one more question: If I came to your house for a weekend, what kinds of foods and drink would we be indulging in? What fun it would be to share a kitchen with you.
SM: You, my dear, have an open invitation. We’ve been friends for many months now. You’ve had my peppers in your kitchen, on your table and your taste buds. We’ve shared stories of our husbands, our cooking, our love of pajamas, tea, and books. I feel as if I’ve known you for years, and I’m grateful to the Twitter-verse for bringing our stars together.
BFR: Awwww. Now I'm blushing but you know the feeling is mutual.
SM: If you came to my house, we’d most certainly have tea, as we are now. Since we’re having an herbal sip at your house, I’d brew us something rich and dark. A good, stout Bewley’s Irish Afternoon or Breakfast. And while both Reba and Elsie are more “sweets” ladies, I’m a salt lover. I could suck a saltlick and be happy as a toddler with a lolly. So for your visit, I’d probably stuff some roasted peppers with a bit of goat cheese and a sprinkle of sea salt on top. Easy does it, yet so scrumptious!
Oh, and I might make us a batch of kale chips. Just recently, I’ve been infatuated with making them. Have you ever had any? My Twitter friend Julie Klam gave me a recipe and I’m sold—they’re vegetable crack, and I can’t stop myself. I’ve made them ten different ways: garlic kale chips, Italian seasoning kale chips, Parmesan kale chips, chili pepper kale chips, etc. I think my favorite are the simple sea salt with a spritz of butter-flavored non-stick cooking spray. That keeps them light but crispy. I promise to make those on your visit west.
However, on my visit east to Beth Fish Reads, I baked up some pumpkin-cranberry-nut muffins. I apologize that I only have ten in my basket now. My husband gobbled two straight out of the oven and gave them a rave review, so I hope you enjoy too.
BFR: *mumble mumble swallow* Sorry, my mouth was full. Yummy muffins. I love pumpkin and cranberry. They go nicely with the crumb cake I baked in honor of Elsie. And um, wow. I'm packing my bag so we can share some good eats.
SM: One of the magical aspects of this novel is that in a way, we are sharing a kitchen. We’re in The Baker’s Daughter’s kitchen together. When you make Elsie’s “Lebkuchen Hearts” recipe, it’s as if she and I, by virtue of having invented her, are there beside you, measuring, mixing, rolling, laughing, baking and sharing.
BFR: Thanks so much for stopping by, Sarah. I had a great time chatting with you and I hope everyone else did too. Oh, can I just have one more muffin? Mr. BFR would love to have it for breakfast tomorrow.
Sarah McCoy's The Baker's Daughter is available at a bookstore near you and at an Indie, Powell's, and Book Depository. (These links lead to affiliate programs.) My review of The Baker's Daughter will appear on the SheKnows Book Lounge site later this month.