“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”
At its core, The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan is a book that underscores the true worth and intrinsic value of freedom, to humanity. That, without it, life itself loses not just its joie de vivre, but it is drained of fundamental meaning and purpose in the most profound of ways. That understanding is driven home to the reader in the very first sentence: “All through those years of war, the bread tasted of humiliation.”
Without freedom, there is a degradation of one’s very nous, in the Aristotelian sense, and living is reduced to not just mere existence, but one where even emptiness has the weight of a blacksmith’s anvil. For most people born in North America today (although new Canadians coming from some parts of the world where bloodshed is a daily part of life will doubtless understand it), it is hard to imagine what life must have been like in an occupied country under Nazism. The Baker’s Secret spells it out on every page in marvelously constructed little vignettes that take one back in time to World War II.
There is death in this book. A lot of it.
The story is told through the thoughts and actions of Emmanuelle, Emma, the twenty-two year old female protagonist, who has baked bread for her village near the Normandy coast since the age of thirteen. Stephen P. Kiernan is a writer who folds grace and elegance into every paragraph. He gives you an almost visceral feeling for the 1944 setting in rural Normandy and Emma’s state of mind on page four.
“Emma stirred the somnolent coals in the brick oven her father had built, tossing in chestnut shells for kindling, giving the ashes a single long breath until they glowed awake and the shells crackled. Then began the tedium, the task the Kommandant had ordered her to perform seven days a week, as though she were a cow with milk to be wrung from her straining udder at morning and eve, or a chicken whelping one new egg per turn of the earth. With each passing day Emma’s love of baking grew a fraction drier, till what had once been her greatest joy dwindled to barely a husk.”
Where the consequences of an inconsequential act could be immediate death.
There is death in this book. A lot of it. The story culminates on D-Day, 1944. The author, with his mastery of wordcraft, lays down vivid textual depictions of the wholesale carnage on the beaches and in Emma’s village during the bombing as the Allies swarm in to begin liberating Nazi-occupied Europe. He puts you right into Emma’s head as she briefly watches the landings from the branches of a tree and you see through her stunned observation that the dead soldiers floating in the water near the beach outnumber the population of her village.
But it is with the individual killings, the summary executions, murders, of civilians, that take place in the back story leading up to D-Day, that he shows you the true horror of what that time must have been like for people living under the Nazis. Where the consequences of an inconsequential act could be immediate death. And often death was doled out for no reason, no act at all, but merely at the whim of the occupiers. That understanding— the precariousness of human life in that circumstance—is near the surface of almost every page of this book.
“No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.” Mahatma Gandhi
“Let us pause for a moment here,” Captain Thalheim said, raising the pistol till the barrel was an arm’s length from Uncle Ezra’s face. “Contemplate your mortality.” And he waited. The wind blew, just then, pressing Uncle Ezra’s apron against him so that you could see the spreading stain and knowing that he had wet himself, that his last moment on earth would be one of humiliation, the fierce expression gone utterly from his face as his head lowered and all the people saw the bald spot on top. “That’s right,” Captain Thalheim said, and he pulled the trigger.”
But, as Mahatma Gandhi said: “No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.” (a lesson for governments everywhere). Even in the face of such brutality, there was resistance. People found ways to push back against the oppression; they committed minor infractions of the occupiers’ rules, regardless of the consequences. It was the symbolism that seemed to matter most, to the oppressed and oppressors alike.
The baker’s secret itself is a small thing in practice but monumental in its implications. It begins as a minor deception, mainly from privation, and grows into something huge, becoming the fulcrum of the story. “She let them in, one by one. Drops in a bucket of need, poured out in providing. Each day it grew: a candle here, a sliver of soap there.”
Each of the secondary characters is fully developed and critical to the story. Their individual accounts are poignant. We get to know them: the Goat; Guillaume the veterinarian; Odette; Monkey Boy and others through wonderfully crafted narrative action.
The Baker’s Secret is one of those stories will tear away at the heart of anyone with an ounce of imagination.
I could not find Emma’s village of Vergers on any map of Normandy. Perhaps it exists. Perhaps it is just a veiled and clever play on words (verger is orchard in French) in reference to the Calvados area of France. In a conversation with the liberators who ask where they are (the occupiers have messed up all the road signs), Emma points to a village on the map “Five kilometers from Longues-sur-Mer.” Today the remains of a World War II artillery battery that the Wehrmacht built as a fortification looks out over the French coast near Longues-sur-Mer. It is a historic site. I got the feeling that the author spent some time there soaking up the local flavour of the region as research for this book.
The copy of The Baker’s Secret that I read is a galley, an Advance Reader’s Edition (not for sale), so when the book is released into the market in May, 2017 readers may find that some things mentioned here may have changed (sometimes this happens between advance copies and final publication). A rumour exists that it may even come out under another title.
The Baker’s Secret is one of those stories will tear away at the heart of anyone with an ounce of imagination. More than seventy years have passed since the end of WW II. Some would say not much was learned from it. Four generations later similar wholesale violence and brutality exist unchecked in some parts of the world. Perhaps that’s why books like The Baker’s Secret are still written, and are still relevant. I got the sense, in reading this story, that the author painted his marvellous word pictures not just to remind us of the atrocities of the past, but to show us that there is hope for the future as well. REG
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