The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
Publisher: William Morrow
Published: May 2017
Genre: historical fiction
On June 5, 1944, as dawn rises over a small town on the Normandy coast of France, Emmanuelle is making the bread that has sustained her fellow villagers in the dark days since the Germans invaded her country.
Only twenty-two, Emma learned to bake at the side of a master, Ezra Kuchen, the village baker since before she was born. Apprenticed to Ezra at thirteen, Emma watched with shame and anger as her kind mentor was forced to wear the six-pointed yellow star on his clothing. She was likewise powerless to help when they pulled Ezra from his shop at gunpoint, the first of many villagers stolen away and never seen again.
But in the years that her sleepy coastal village has suffered under the enemy, 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 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—the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.
In a small French village off the coast of Normandy, a baker cunningly helps the people of her town stay alive during the German occupation. Emma has lost all hope of the Allies coming to save them, and so defies the Nazis by baking more bread in secret, using an undercover network to make sure each person can last another day. Little does she know that, as hopeless as she feels, she herself is sustaining the life of the village and feeding the people hope, hope until the Allied Forces are able to storm the beaches just over the hills.
At the time I read the novel, I’d just finished watching the HBO series Band of Brothers. It was like a weird coincidence, finishing up a stunning and heartbreaking show following the 101st Airbourne paratroopers from training for D-Day, D-Day, through V-E Day, and then starting a novel set primarily on June 5 and 6, the day before and of D-Day. We even meet some of these men as they push the Germans out of the village and help the French take back their homes and livelihoods.
I was especially moved by Emma and her quiet resilience. Even though she’s lost all hope, she is desperate to survive at all costs. She was an inspiring character. She is defiant and ruthless by necessity, but full of heart and love for the people of her village — even the ones she genuinely doesn’t like. The way she was able to play the Germans and create her little secret network was brilliant.
The story is told in little vignettes as Emma bakes throughout the day on June 5 — vignettes about characters in the village, village history, instances that occurred during the German occupation, and flashbacks and memories leading up to June 6, 1944. It was a literary, lush, engaging read, yet a quick one as well thanks to the vignette style. Fans of Guernsey Literary and the HBO Band of Brothers show would enjoy this novel. Anyone interested in WWII occupation stories or French underground networks would find something to love as well.
This qualifies as book 7 of 5 library books in 2017.