The Baker’s Secret by Stephen Kiernan

baker's secret by stephen kiernanThe Baker’s Secret, is a compelling story on so many levels. It’s one of tragedy, love, endurance and redemption. The author is an award winning writer of the nonfiction books Last Rights (about how to improve end-of-life medical care) and Authentic Patriotism (about renewing America through volunteerism and philanthropy). He has won more than 40 awards for his work in newspapers.

The novel is set in Vergers, a coastal village in Normandy during World War II and the characters are well-developed, flawed, and unforgettable.  The heroine of the story, a baker named Emmanuelle, called Emma, is only 22 and under Nazi occupation, the Kommandant has ordered her to bake 12 loaves of bread each day for his soldiers. Food is scarce and the villagers are going hungry but by adding straw to the flour, Emma is able to stretch the daily ration to bake two extra loaves to secretly give them.

Emma suffers unimaginable losses.  Her father is taken away, leaving Emma her to care for her ailing grandmother, Mémé. Her mentor, Ezra Kuchen, is shot before her eyes because he is Jewish. She loses Phillipe, the love of her life, who is conscripted for forced labor. Emma witnesses the immense cruelty around her,  but it only strengthens her resolve and she finds a way to fight back.

Emma is brave and defiant and creates an underground network to help and feed those around her by bartering and occasionally stealing, but “only from those who supported the occupying army.” She makes deals and gains the trust of the villagers, bringing them hope. When the Nazi captain starts uncovering the clandestine network, it takes all of Emma’s courage to persevere in the face of likely execution.   She displays a vast reserve of courage and strength of will that is hard to imagine.

There are moments when readers might wonder what really drives her, because she has no faith in being rescued by the Allies and she has lost her faith in God.  She does not believe the Allies will come and has nothing but scorn for the village priest, who she sees as consorting with the enemy. There are other equally well drawn characters and the story makes one wonder how you would fare in these circumstances.

This novel is both heart-wrenching and inspiring. It addresses the horrors of war, but also portrays the resilience that is deep within and speaks to the importance of having a purpose and believing in the dream of a better future. For Emma, that dream is “to keep as many people alive as possible.”  This book is ultimately uplifting, and the triumph of the spirit moves throughout.  For history buffs and World War II readers, don’t miss this tremendous story.

Luba Sawczyn is the Branch Manager of the Graham Public Library.  She can be reached at lsawczyn@alamancelibraries.org or (336) 570-6730