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The Baker's Secret


The Baker's Secret

The secret is straw. Ground by hand in a mortar and pestle until it’s a fine, yellow dust. The secret to making 12 baguettes into 14 is several handfuls of straw tossed into the dough. At least that’s one of the secrets, one of the very first revealed, in Stephen P. Kiernan’s new historical novel, THE BAKER’S SECRET. The story is set during the Second World War in the small French town of Vergers on the Normandy coast. The town is occupied by the German army. Hunger is rampant, rumors of atrocity pass in whispers, and the Monseigneur wields a wheelbarrow to cart bodies to the church for funerals.

Emmanuelle, or Emma for short, is the baker’s apprentice when the war starts. She has been working in the bakery since age 12 and turns out to be a prolific baking talent. Uncle Ezra is the baker, though he’s not actually anyone’s uncle. He’s a curmudgeonly old man who hands out cinnamon rolls to every townsperson on Christmas Eve, even though he’s Jewish. When the Germans invade, Uncle Ezra wears the mandatory star and tries to stay out of the way of the brutal Captain Thalheim. Before long, Emma’s fiancé Philippe is conscripted, her father is arrested, and Uncle Ezra meets a fate that doesn’t allow him to bake anymore.

"There are a lot of people who will really love THE BAKER’S SECRET.... [I]t’s a nice representation of a village in Occupied France, a close-knit community where most everyone is trying to look out for one another in a perilous time."

In her grief, Emma refuses to return to the bakery and begins working in the baking shed on her father’s property. One morning, as she’s using her rations to make baguettes for her and her grandmother, the local Kommandant drives by and smells the bread. After tasting it, he assigns Emma to bake a dozen loaves each day for him and his officers. People around her are starving as the war rages on and rations are cut. Then Emma devises a plan to grind straw, of which there is an abundance, and add it to her bread dough to produce two extra loaves each morning. The Germans don’t discern a difference in the bread containing straw, and thus Emma sets off down a path dedicated to keeping her friends and family fed until the day of liberation.

It’s everyone else who believes in liberation. Emma does not think the Allies will ever come, and says so repeatedly throughout the narrative. She has no hope as she watches people she loves get killed and starve while the Germans and anyone in their favor remain well-fed and protected. As dawn breaks on June 5, 1944, things begin to fall apart for Emma. Captain Thalheim discovers her straw when he comes into the baking shed. Later that day, she’s suspected of syphoning gas from the motorcycle of a German lieutenant. On the very edge of the invasion of Normandy, Emma is in danger of losing her life.

There are a lot of people who will really love THE BAKER’S SECRET. Its focus is on a small town trying to survive German occupation and how the war played out on that front. The cast of characters feels relatively the same as those you’ve read about in similar tales. The oddballs are actually heroes, the slimy guy is an informer, the town beauty isn’t the whore everyone perceives, and the German captain really is that awful. Emma is a clever girl who is always very angry. She harbors no hope for the future but endeavors to save the town, believing she’s the only one who can do it and seems constantly annoyed with everyone.

I found Emma to be a bit of an enigma in the midst of a somewhat predictable novel that seems to be the reincarnation of many that have come before. Still, it’s a nice representation of a village in Occupied France, a close-knit community where most everyone is trying to look out for one another in a perilous time.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on May 12, 2017

The Baker's Secret
by Stephen P. Kiernan

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062369598
  • ISBN-13: 9780062369598