In 1945, Elsie Schmidt was a naïve teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she was for her first kiss. But in the waning days of the Nazi empire, with food scarce and fears of sedition mounting, even the private yearnings of teenage girls were subject to suspicion and suppression. Elsie’s courtship by Josef Hub, a rising star in the Army of the Third Reich, has insulated her and her family from the terror and desperation overtaking her country. 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 puts all she loves in danger.
Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine. Reba is a rolling stone, perpetually on the run from memories of a turbulent childhood, but she’s been in El Paso long enough to get a full-time job and a full-time fiancé, Riki Chavez. Riki, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, finds comfort in strict rules and regulations, whereas Reba knows that in every good story, lines will be blurred.
Reba's 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. Elsie keeps turning the tables on Reba, and Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story. For Elsie, Reba's questions have been a stinging reminder of darker times: her life in Germany during that last bleak year of WWII. And as Elsie, Reba, and Riki's lives become more intertwined, all are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
I started thinking that I wanted to read this book even before the initial release date. Despite that, it took being on a blog tour to prompt me to actually read it. What was I waiting for? No idea. Do I kind of wish I had of read it earlier? Absolutely!
This book is so good and in some way is tailor made for me as a reader. There's intertwined threads, both modern and historical. There's delicious sounding food, there is plenty to think about and just a touch of romance.
The book opens when Reba Adams visits the local German bakery. She has been trying to find a time to meet with Elsie, the owner and baker, as she is trying to write a series of articles about Christmas in different cultures. She is hoping to get an upbeat Christmassy quote about German celebrations - something a little light and fluffy. What she gets is so much more, not only in terms of the story that she hears, but also the impact that Elsie and her daughter make on her.
Elsie Schmidt is the title character - she is the baker's daughter. She lives in a small town in Germany during World War II. Like many others around them, her family is struggling to get by, doing their best to still provide bread to their neighbourhood despite the shortages and restrictions that are being place on them by the Nazi regime and by the deprivations of war.
What makes this portrayal of German life interesting is that Elsie's family have initially pretty much subscribed to the Nazi propaganda. Her father believes in keeping on keeping on for the fatherland but what you can't tell, certainly in the early parts of the book, is how much of that belief is genuine, and how much is influenced by fear. Her sister Hazel is part of the prestigious (at the time) Lebensborn program, hoping to be part of breeding the next generation of 'perfect Aryans'. Elsie is young and a little naive, especially when she doesn't realise that the Nazi officer that is giving her a little attention is interested romantically! As a reader, we get to see something of that officer's intentions in relation to Elsie. In a way, he sees her as a means to some level of forgiveness, which is interesting given his actions as a SS officer. In many ways, Josef is a clear example of how there are no cut and dried characters in that book. There are definitely characters who are doing bad things but some of those same characters are also given a human face.
Instead of telling Reba about German customs and festive cheer, the story that Elsie tells her is of a particularly Christmas in 1944 when Elsie attends a ball with Josef. He offers her marriage but even on a night when she should be celebrating, the distrust that exists in Germany manifests itself. Little does Elsie know but this one night will change her life completely and in ways that could put both herself and the rest of her family in grave danger.
It was interesting to see the way that the author chose to tell the different stories. We got to hear about Hazel's life in the Lebensborn program through the letters that the two sisters exchanged. Elsie told her story as a story to Reba but as a reader we were treated to flashbacks of the key events in the story. One important thing to note is the dates that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Whilst the modern story is told pretty much chronologically, the historical story tended to jump around a little bit through the war years.
It was also interesting to see how the author tied history together with current events, particularly in relation to Reba's fiance and his work. He works in Border Patrol and has to deal with the many illegal immigrants that cross the border into America across the Rio Grande. The work is emotionally difficult for Riki and highlights the human face of these immigrants, many of whom are women and children just hoping for a better life which has to be balanced against the fact that they are breaking the law.
For Reba, her exposure to Elsie and her daughter Jane also force her to look at her own family relationships which have been strained for many years, initially as a result of the emotional stresses inflicted on and by a Vietnam vet father. Later, the strain was exacerbated by distance, time and small lies that grew into much more. Even with Riki, Reba has to figure out what she wants and what she is prepared to do in order to get to that point, before it is far too late.
Just reading through this now, there is an awful lot going on in this novel (and really I have only touched on some of the major themes). It takes a very good author to be able to keep the balance between these themes and McCoy does it seemingly with ease. I have now requested her first book from the library, and I will be keeping an eye out for her next book!
Oh, I was just about to wrap up the review and realised that I haven't even talked about the food! Reading this book left my taste buds tantalised with mentions of German, American and Mexican treats all mentioned. At the end of the book the author also shared some of the recipes that are mentioned in the book! Yum!
Thanks to TLC Booktours and the publishers for my copy of this book.