Inside the Nightmare

Novelist Sarah McCoy kneads together one family’s Third-Reich past and another’s Texas-border present

by Lyda Phillips

The Baker’s Daughter
By Sarah McCoy
Crown
304 pages
$23

The prologue to Sarah McCoy’s new novel, The Baker’s Daughter, is set in Garmisch, Germany, and opens with a provocative image: “In the kitchen, bundled dough mounds as white and round as babies lined the countertop and filled the space with the smell of milk and honey and promises of a full tomorrow.” It is 1945, and Elsie Schmidt, the daughter of a Garmisch baker in the last years of World War II, is just sixteen. She is frightened by the war news, the rumors of death camps, and the fact that her sister is in a Nazi breeding program. Yet Elsie is still just a young girl longing for love, eager to step from the bakery kitchen into the larger world.

More than sixty years later Elsie is a widow, still baking German bread and pastries, but now in El Paso, Texas, where human beings are once again routinely pursued and detained by the authorities. When Reba, a young reporter working on a Christmas feature, seeks out Elsie for her memories of Yuletide in Bavaria, she doesn’t get the “killer quote” she’s looking for. Instead of snow-covered cottages and sleigh bells, Elsie gives Reba the unvarnished truth. “In Germany, I remember Christmases without a lot of food, my father trying to run our bakery on a cup of sugar a week. Cold Christmases. So cold a person could freeze to death. Drunk soldiers in wool uniforms. Dirty boot prints in the snow. Families unable to see each other and secrets that had nothing to do with Saint Nikolaus or reindeer or magic.”

In passages that weave together scenes from the past and the present, as well as the viewpoints of all the major characters, McCoy reveals the horrors Elsie witnessed as Nazi Germany collapsed and the Americans moved in, bringing hope and laughter. These revelations tie Reba and Elsie together and help Reba resolve her own questions about family and commitment.

Though The Baker’s Daughter is not an autobiographical novel, it bears traces of the author’s own life, from her childhood in Germany as the daughter of an Army officer, to her later life in El Paso, where she wrote an article for a local magazine about the large community of Germans who live in Texas and New Mexico. When McCoy, whose first novel was The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico, met an eighty-year-old German woman selling bread at a local farmers’ market, The Baker’s Daughter was born. In it McCoy delivers an intimate and nuanced view of people trapped in the nightmare culture of Aryan supremacy and draws an intriguing parallel to between Nazi Germany and the current U.S. debate over immigration.

[This review originally appeared on May 15, 2012.]

Published Tuesday, 24 July 2012