This is the tender story of 2 women – Reba, a journalist living in El Paso, assigned to interview a German baker for a Christmas story, and Elsie, the baker during her youth in Germany in 1944. As Reba is battling her ghosts, trying to sort out her own difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, we learn also of Elsie’s trauma of coming of age in Hitler’s failing war and the bravery she demonstrates silently at that time. As the two characters get to know each other, they develop a friendship that goes beyond friendship and Elsie and and her daughter Jane become Reba’s second family.
I like the unfolding of the story, as it ping pongs back and forth between the two time periods. This technique is not uncommon, but it never fails to elevate the suspense. The tension in the story reaches a crescendo, and then – bam! – switch to the other time period. A sure-fire way to keep the reader turning those pages.
And as many World War II stories as I’ve read – and there have been many, even just in this blog alone! – I still learn new things. The new and ugly detail that I had not learned of before was about the Lebensborn Program. This program was Himmler’s attempt at genetic programming. There were houses set up in Germany to essentially breed the idealized, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans. Women were kept in these houses for chosen men – married or not – to come and “mate” with them. The attraction was that the children were given privileges others didn’t have – food, education, other benefits. However, when babies were born to these women with undesirable characteristics, these babies were done away with, in whatever fashion was easiest. Evidently, there were other programs tied to this, where children (often Polish) were kidnapped to be dedicated and trained to serve the Third Reich, if they had these characteristics as well.
Evidently, when you think you’ve learned about all the cruelty that could exist, there is still more to discover.
I would not count this book among the “MUST READ’S,” however. I think that the writing in some spots is excellent and in some spots is quite ordinary. Somehow, the parts that describe Elsie are tender, rich, and colorful – as Elsie’s character is. The parts that describe Reba, though, feel flat. It may be that we don’t have as deep a window into her character as we do to Elsie’s.
I do recommend this, though, as it is still an interesting read, with suspense and feeling and important historical context.