REVIEW: Family drama and history in ‘The Union Street Bakery’

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 04:45 PM

“The Union Street Bakery” by Mary Ellen Taylor (Berkley Trade Paperback Original, $15)

Like a good recipe, the new novel “The Union Street Bakery” has a little bit of everything that makes a satisfying experience. Written by Mary Ellen Taylor – who also writes romance and suspense as Mary Burton – this novel is her first in the women’s fiction genre. It has elements of her other work, but the core of this story is Daisy McCrae’s upheaval as she figures out her life.
Set in Old Town Alexandria, Va., Daisy was abandoned at age 3 at a bakery. She is adopted by the bakery owners and grows up in a loving home, though she never feels quite comfortable in her family, at the bakery or with herself. After her job in finance and her personal life crumble, Daisy reluctantly returns home.
“The Union Street Bakery” is a relatively light read, but delves into very serious matters – child abandonment, race, death, financial trouble and family ups and downs. Back at the bakery, there to bail out the business side and work again with her sisters, Daisy returns to her childhood room and the imaginary friend she knew as a child, Susie. An elderly neighbor comes into the bakery on Daisy’s first day back with words that further shake up Daisy’s world: she knew Daisy’s birth mother. What’s more, the woman dies soon after and bequeaths the journal of an enslaved girl named Susie who lived in Alexandria in the mid-1800s, the very same Susie Daisy knows. Daisy must determine how the historic journal and her ancestry are connected, with help from her history-loving sister.
A lot of Southern-set books that deal with slavery focus on the Deep South, forgetting the role played in the northern South, in particular the city on the Potomac River, Alexandria. Alexandria was a hub of the slave trade, where thousands of local enslaved African-Americans were sold and shipped to Southern plantations. Taylor mentions the slavery history of Alexandria through her focus on Susie, whose own story unfolds as “The Union Street Bakery” novel progresses. The supernatural element connects the present with Antebellum Alexandria, but Daisy is too steeped in the reality of figuring out her life to fret too much about ghosts. Her truth is found in the journal and historical records.
Taylor pairs the past with the present to please history fans as well as those who like tales of family secrets, reinvention and renewal.
Old Town Alexandria today is a beautiful neighborhood and shopping and dining area that draws many for its history, art and architectural beauty. For those who haven’t been there, there is indeed a Union Street, though the bakery and story are fictional. Taylor, who lives in Virginia, conveys the essence of the community, of regular shop patrons and history literally around every corner in centuries-old buildings.
Taylor serves up a great mix of vivid setting, history, drama and everyday life in “The Union Street Bakery.” Here’s hoping she writes more like it.