The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck is another World War II story, but this one comes from a different angle, exploring the mayhem in Germany after the Allies storm Berlin and the Fuhrer is dead. In the small villages throughout Germany, the common people supported Hitler and are secretly angry at the Americans who have taken over. Necessities are scarce, not only food and clothing, but fuel needed for the coming winter months. They refuse to believe the atrocities described on the radio and the films depicting emaciated prisoners being released from the concentration camps are in their minds a hoax (or much worse, really German prisoners who have been mistreated by the true enemy). Although deep down they know the truth, they refuse to take any blame or even acknowledge a crime against humanity has been committed by their beloved country. In this case, pretended ignorance is bliss. Yet, even accepting guilt won’t change the past. Despicable behaviors were too often forced upon them in order to survive. In a way, they too were victims.
Yet not all Germans were culpable. Many were appalled by the Hitler regime and a small group, the German Resisters, set out to destroy the Fuhrer before he could do further damage. Unfortunately they failed in their attempt and were hanged for their efforts. Left behind were their wives and children and this is where our story takes us, to an old-fashioned Bavarian castle without modern amenities where three women and their young ones band together to survive the post war period.
Marianne von Lingenfels, married to Professor Albrecht, an aristocratic descendent of famed German Generals, played an active role in dissent, but, being a woman, is left behind to pick up the pieces when her husband and his compatriots are sentenced to death. Her childhood companion Conrad (Connie) Flederman has extracted a promise from her to look after his wife and son, and so she diligently seeks out Benita and their sensitive child Martin, and also tracks down fellow widow Ania Grabanek and her two reticent sons, Anselm and Wolfgang, rescuing them all from the deplorable conditions common in the aftermath of war. Together, along with Marianne’s own three children, Fritz, Elizabeth, and Katherine, they live in the Von Lingenfels’ ancestral Castle, working as a team to raise their newly formed family, surviving as best they can during the reconstruction of Germany.
The tale meanders back and forth between 1938, 1945, 1950, and 1991, presenting varying points of view as each of the characters explores their particular circumstances during those time periods revealing hidden truths through their introspections. While the modern day ending should be one of hope for those who survived such trauma, I found it eerily unnerving, even depressing, as the “family” has difficulty moving forward and discovering happiness. Even success is tinged with a sense of sorrow, as if the yolk of war crimes is a millstone which can never be set down.
This is a novel with a lot to say giving the reader a somewhat different perspective of the war, requiring some reassessing of the truths we learned about Hitler’s Third Reich. Jessica Shattuck’s mother was born in Germany in 1943 and after her death, the author spent time with her Grandmother trying to find out more about her mother’s childhood. This plus all the other research is evident and I can see why it took seven plus years to complete. While her personal family history inspired this book, it is a work of fiction and not strictly biographical, although the viewpoints of her grandmother, an unabashed Nazi, are definitely reflected in the tone of the novel. If you find yourself drawing some parallels between this story and the current political climate in the United States, then consider that a bonus. Four stars.
This review also appears on Goodreads.