The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle Book Cover The Women in the Castle
Jessica Shattuck
Historical Fiction
William Morrow
March 28, 2017
Hardcover
368

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

 

The Women in the Castle is by no means a book you would find in the humor section, but it does bring a quote from “MASH” to mind.

Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.

Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?

Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?

Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.

Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.

This story is the rare WWII novel that focuses on the life of civilians who were affected by the conflict. They are German civilians, on top of that. The three women this story follows all find themselves in the same situation, yet they all walk different roads. None of them asked for their country to go to war or their husbands to die. They did not ask to be widows trying to care for their children in a broken land. Their lives were shattered and they were thrown together, forced to reassemble the pieces as best they could.

Another factor making this book unique is that it mostly takes place after the war. WWII stories tend to focus on the conflict itself, the battles and the action. There are bits in The Women in the Castle taking place before and during the war but most of the book is afterwards. This story goes beyond the typical “Allies good, Axis bad” set-up. It shows that there were people within the Axis powers who disagreed with their leaders to the point of self-sacrifice. And when these individuals failed to bring down the Nazi party they left families behind.

For everything these women go through, you have to remember that they were the lucky ones. They were considered to be “pure” (Aryan) enough to not simply be executed. These women had food for themselves and their children. Their home was sturdy and heated; it was not a bombed out ruin in a city. But their country was broken and almost an entire generation of men was gone. To see how these people survive in the aftermath of such an unimaginable atrocity is becoming harder to depict. As time marches on, people begin to forget the terrors of the past. Even the greatest terror that the world has ever seen are being forgotten when not even a century has passed. It is crucial to remember that while this story is fiction, these horrors were real. People like these women and their children and everyone around them were real.

June 18, 2017

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