- What: The Women in the Castle
- Who: Jessica Shattuck
- Pages: 353, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Schools mandate history classes with the justification that they help prevent mistakes that became the downfalls of previous generations and eras. Don’t adults owe society the same proactive mindset as the prominent decision-makers? In a world as politically charged as ours in 2018, history couldn’t be more important, and fiction gives it the most interesting depiction. Literature not only reminds us of past tragedy but also of how to build from the rubble.
I’ve read a lot of World War II fiction, and that’s because this time period gives us some of the most intriguing, confusing, emotional, and heartbreaking stories of human existence. The hatred that was spread and also the love and kindness that were borne from this pain are incredibly relevant today. Books like Jessica Shattuck’s 2017 smash, The Women in the Castle, are of course tragic, beautiful, and complete page-turners, but they are also critical if we ever want to better our society and avoid repeating our darkest days.
“What does it take for a person to be able to recognize evil as it unfolds? To see with foresight and acuity.” — The Women in the Castle
WWII seems to be the one war where women weren’t completely forgotten in history, but what do we know about the European mothers, wives, and resisters who not only fought for a just cause but also for their lives and the lives of their families? Shattuck fills this gap by telling the story of three women in Germany before, during, and after the war who risked their lives — leading to some questionable decisions — to protect their growing families.
Marianne von Lingenfels is a sturdy woman who doesn’t have time for frivolous things, such as appearance. Her morals lack gray, and she firmly believes right and wrong should never be questioned. When her husband and his male associates, as German anti-Nazis, plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler, she vows to corral the men’s wives and children from every dark corner and protect them should anything go wrong with the plot.
Sadly, Marianne must fulfill her promise seven years later.
First, she reunites Benita, the wife of a lifelong friend, with her son, Martin, who has been taken away to a Nazi reeducation home. With her beauty and appreciation for the finer things in life, Benita doesn’t always agree with Marianne and her definitive moral stance. But she stays because where else can a widow go? Then, she finds Ania, a quiet and practical woman who Marianne had never heard of, and her two young boys. Ania’s reserved spirit hints at deeper secrets that will spill out long after the war has ended and after the Russian soldiers have gone home.
“There is so much gray between the black and the white and this is where most of us live, trying, but so often failing, to bend towards the light.” —The Women in the Castle
Secrets among the women eventually crack the fragile existence the women have built together. Through the severance of ties and then with the help of time, however, they learn that gray can accompany ugly and that the bonds formed during the toughest times matter most.
The stories that Shattuck tells to convey these lessons are what make The Women in the Castle such a magical read. The words and phrases she strings together aren’t the most poetic and can often be quite straightforward, but the book is raised by compelling storytelling and conflicted characters:
- One woman appears perfect, but even those with the greatest moral fiber have flaws and blind spots.
- Another woman has a difficult and questionable past that she’s trying to overcome and rectify.
- And the third struggles to overcome the shallow while yearning for more respect.
These contrasting narratives color every page of this novel. And by combining these three stories, Shattuck proves that plot is king in any form of literature. What use does flowery language have if intriguing narrative doesn’t accompany it? In my experience, this can only douse a book’s review.
“For so long Marianne and Albrecht and many of their friends had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment for their country.” — The Women in the Castle
Another beautiful element about this novel is how it illustrates inner turmoil being as difficult and damaging as a broader conflict. In this story, atrocities have created shame, and coping with that guilt is a battle all on its own. Shattuck, whose mother is German and whose grandparents lived there, told NPR how this shame framed her childhood:
“I loved going [to Germany], and I loved my grandparents, but I also knew there was a very dark history, and I felt very conflicted about that.”
Shattuck injects her own experience and that of her whole family into each of the characters. She also questions whether participants who are resistant, ignorant, or skeptical — though participants nonetheless — are as inherently bad as their leaders. Shattuck implies that simply disagreeing with the wicked isn’t good enough and that some form of action is required, but should these questioning individuals or cultures be ostracized forever and not offered a second chance? She never fully answers that question, but why or how could she? That answer lies fully in the gray, the abstract setting of the novel.
“‘We are not all thugs and villains. But we will become these, if we don’t try to make change.'” — Benita’s husband in The Women in the Castle
The Jewish Book Council writes that, “At its core, the book raises anew an old question: How did good people become Nazis? It seeks to find answers that contain sufficient insight and empathy to satisfy the book’s readers, Jew and gentile alike.”
The questions this novel raises and its perspectives vary from most World War II literature that exists, which often tell the stories of the victims and heroes. While these narratives must be told and shared repeatedly, we also need the other viewpoints. Without that insight, how can we prevent such horror and mistakes from being made in the future? Only then will history’s true power come to fruition.