1272 Pâtisserie to page-turner
The French Baker’s War
by Michael Whatling
Vancouver: Mortal Coil Books, 2021
$21.99 / 9781777569921
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Reviewed by Valerie Green
Michael Whatling has written a deeply moving Second World War story in The French Baker’s War. In a distinctive writing style, he has managed to capture the horror and hopelessness of life in a Nazi-occupied French village, and how impossible situations can drastically change a person’s perspective on life.
The story takes place between October 19 and December 5 of 1943 and concerns three central characters – pâtisserie owners André and Mireille Albert, and Émilie, an emaciated Jewish woman discovered by André hiding in their shop after he returns from a shopping trip for rationed food ingredients to keep his business and family alive.
But with the discovery of Émilie cowering in his shop, André also finds that his wife Mireille has completely disappeared and her mysterious disappearance causes André’s whole world to fall apart. He goes into deep despair as he desperately tries to find her at a time when everyone is watched and everyone’s life is in jeopardy for asking too many questions. He feels sure she would not have left him or their four year-old challenged son of her own free will, but despite making discreet enquiries everywhere, he only finds more questions than answers.
At the same time, he feels obligated to hide Émilie from the Nazis when a Nazi officer comes to the store to investigate Mireille’s disappearance. He is also trying to keep his son Frederic safe and happy while explaining the absence of his mother to the child, and endeavouring to maintain his long-time friendship with Monsieur Durand, another shopkeeper in the village.
Whatling has perfectly managed to capture the essence of a French village and its various residents — the baker, the florist, the bookseller and so on — but the German occupation and years of war have affected everyone. Even André’s friendship with Monsieur Durand is strained. By late 1943, loyalties are being stretched, temptations are rife and the Nazis are everywhere listening and watching.
The French Baker’s War is a somewhat depressing tale of the hopelessness of life during that time in history, but Whatling states at the beginning of the book that it is “inspired by a true story,” so obviously such things were happening.
Protagonist André Albert must also deal with his own demons from his past concerning his relationship with his father, who wanted him to stay working at the family vineyard in the countryside instead of becoming a baker and taking over his parents-in-law’s pâtisserie in a village far away. In the midst of all that is happening, his parents come for a visit, and Mireille’s absence and Émilie’s presence in their home must be explained to them. André’s problems continue to increase as he also becomes involved with the French Resistance in an attempt to find his missing wife.
Whatling’s prose is strong and powerful and the reader will be inspired to keep turning the pages until the end by reading such sentences such as:
André goes through the motions of making pastries, while Émilie polishes the display case. They work in silence, each exhaling puffs of rancor and regret.
Or, A nun in her flowing habit, beaming like a celestial revelation.
Or, A burst of their laughter skims across the water, taunting as the key to a dungeon cell dangling just out of reach.
And, In a row of brown and beige doors, the blue one stands out like a Moulin Rouge dancer at temple.
This is expressive writing at its finest and is on a par with the best in historical fiction. The author has indeed achieved an excellent self-published book where even the professionalism of a publisher could hardly have improved it in any way.
From a reader’s perspective I was, therefore, somewhat disappointed with the ending. There were many unexplained things left dangling — things a reader would want to have tied up. But the subject matter of this book calls for sacrifice, so without giving away the ending, I should perhaps add that Whatling probably had no other choice but to complete his story this way. In any event, the book is a page-turner and will be appreciated by all those who enjoy historical fiction set in the Second World War.
The French Baker’s War is Michael Whatling’s debut novel. His career began as a technical writer for engineering firms in Canada and Japan followed by a teaching career at both secondary and university levels. Later he wrote a collection of young adult stories entitled A Vigil for Joe Rose. He is also the author of an award-winning independent film, The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova. He lives near Victoria.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie Green has recently reviewed books by Jen Sookfong Lee, Kay Jordan, Leanne Baugh, Sara Cassidy, Catherine McKenzie, Mary-Anne Neal, Vanessa Winn, Edeana Malcolm and Janie Chang.
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