The Women in the Castle — Book Review

The Women in the Castle coverAlbrecht had not approved at first. Assassination. Murder. It was not the culmination he wanted for the resistance movement. In his estimation, injustice could be fought only with justice — he was a lawyer to the core. Murder was evil. This was an absolute. But if it would end the war and prevent the murder of thousands? Even millions? They had debated this often deep into the night with him probing his own convictions and Marianne playing devil’s advocate. Although in fact, she was not the devil’s advocate. She believed Connie and von Stauffenberg and the others were right. Hitler must be killed.
Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle

The “women in the castle” are widows of three of the men who participated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In the aftermath of the war, they and their children take refuge in Burg Lingenfels, an ancient, crumbling castle in Bavaria. Their only common bond is that their husbands sacrificed their lives in a futile effort to save their country from Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, the moral center of the novel and “the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing”, shelters her fellow war widows and their children in the safest place she knows, a fortress once famous for parties that celebrated “liberal, bohemian culture.”

The novel opens on November 9, 1938, the date that Nazis carried out pogroms against German Jews in the infamous attacks that would later be known as Kristallnacht.  That night, at a party at Burg Lingenfels, the news reaches Marianne, her husband, Albrecht, her close childhood friend, Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, and others who oppose Hitler. Shocked and saddened, they “commit to active resistance from this day forward”. Although she is insulted by the men’s chauvinism, Marianne agrees to be “the commander of wives and children”, a role she takes seriously, “long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two . . .”.

The novel jumps to June 1945, when Marianne rescues Connie’s widow, Benita Fledermann, a young and uneducated woman from a small village, who has been held captive by the Russians in Berlin, along with her young son, who spent the war in a “Children’s Home” run by the Gestapo. Later, Marianne tracks down Ania Grabarek, widow of Pietre Grabarek, a Polish resister, in a displaced persons camp and brings her and her two sons to the castle.

The rest of the novel is devoted to the women’s experiences during and after the war, as Jessica Shattuck skillfully shifts points of view and time periods. The story, which both begins and ends at Burg Lingenfels, is not a traditional plot, but the unfolding of the women’s lives as they grapple with the guilt they feel for their wartime actions. In this way, they are emblematic of the German people, faced with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. But each of the women emerges as a believable, full recognized character. Readers may not agree with some of their choices, but they will understand.

In an interview, the author describes the origins of her novel: her German mother and Nazi grandparents. She spent a summer during college interviewing her grandmother, who was remarkably open about Nazism. (Shattuck’s grandfather, a “difficult and intimidating figure” was not as forthcoming.) Shattuck realized that many, if not most, members of her grandparents’ generation (“ordinary Germans”) were enthusiastic Nazis. Her grandmother wanted to talk about how this could have happened:

And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.

Another source of inspiration for The Women in the Castle was a reunion of the wives and children of resisters that Shattuck attended:

One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party . . . Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.

647492Shattuck says that although “The Women in the Castle centers on three widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance.”  Franz Muller, with whom Benita falls in love, is tortured by his complicity in atrocities. I wasn’t surprised to read in Shattuck’s Acknowledgments that Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning was one of her sources. One of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, Ordinary Men describes how a group of middle-aged men willingly murdered thousands of innocent Jews, even though they would suffer no negative repercussions if they refused to participate.

We’d all like to think that if we were Germans in 1938, we would have seen Hitler’s evil as clearly Marianne von Lingenfels and her fellow resisters did. But would we?

Readers who appreciate character-driven novels and want to understand World War II from a different perspective will love The Women in the Castle. I’m adding to my list of favorite World War II fiction, along with All the Light We Cannot See (still my #1!), Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, and The Invisible Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

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Time for Spring Break

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March 31

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April 1

According to the saying, March goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about that, because yesterday as I looked out the window on the 18th floor of a Chicago high-rise I saw low-lying gray clouds obscuring the tops of skyscrapers, cold waves crashing dangerously close to Lake Shore Drive, and rain blowing sideways. Today, on April 1, the sun is shining and runners are once again crowding the sidewalks and paths, so maybe spring is on its way. I’m going to take a “spring break” from blogging for a few weeks, but here are a few books I enjoyed that have just hit the shelves.

You’ve probably heard about two of this spring’s “big books”, The Women in the Castle and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

25150798I loved Lisa See’s breakout novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but didn’t think her subsequent books were quite as good. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is on a par with Snow Flower. The story, centered on a Chinese peasant woman and the daughter she’s forced to abandon, who is adopted by an American family, is terrific — and the novel is packed with interesting information about Chinese hill tribes and the tea industry. When I started the book I assumed it was set in the past, and was shocked when I realized the tribal culture See describes so well has only recently faded away as modernization has entered the most remote areas of China.  (By the way,  On Gold Mountain, the chronicle of the See family’s history in the United States, reads like a novel and might be my favorite of all See’s books.)

y648Jessica Shattuck’s debut novel, The Women in the Castle, has received a lot of pre-publication hype — deservedly so. If you think you’ve read more than your share of World War II novels, think again, because The Women in the Castle provides a fascinating perspective unfamiliar to most readers. The “women” of the title are the widows of three conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler. I’ll post a full review on April 20.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eI’d like to recommend a smaller novel you may not have heard about — The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz. (For those who are wondering, the author is a cousin of Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road.) I read this book almost without stopping, and when I reached the very satisfying ending, I actually wished the book were longer. Often, when I finish a book, I think, Didn’t anyone edit this book? I could have cut out a third of it.

Not only is Korelitz a marvelous writer, whose sentences inspire admiration, she’s spun a clever tale about a topic of great interest to me: political correctness and dissent on college campuses. Readers of The Sabbathday River, a thriller Korelitz published almost twenty years ago, may remember the character of Naomi Roth — I actually did, which says a lot about the strength of Korelitz’s writing. Naomi Roth reappears in The Devil and Webster, this time as the president of a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, struggling with a student protest that threatens both her career and her relationship with her daughter.

The student protestors are irate that a popular professor, whose field of study is “folklore” and is known for his entertaining lectures and easy A’s, has been denied tenure. What they don’t know, and the college administration can’t legally share with them, is that he is guilty of academic dishonesty:

Plagiarism, plagiarism, Naomi thought, scanning the printout from the website, which Kinikini had brought for her. It was an ugly word, ugly to anyone who’d ever attempted the delicate but gut-wrenching task of setting words onto paper (or its technological equivalents). Words might feel universal, but they were not, because when they were put together they made patterns, and those patterns were as personally composed as any line of music or labored-over pigment on a canvas.

Anyone who’s a fan of campus novels or social satire will love The Devil and Webster. I’ve enjoyed all of Korelitz’s earlier books (unlike her famous cousin, Helene Hanff, whose response to Korelitz’s first effort was “Why would you write this?”), particularly Admission and You Should Have Known (read my review here). Please let me know what’s on your reading list this spring!