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The Women in the Castle: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 28, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2017: Much of the buzz touting Jessica Shattuck’s WWII novel, The Women in the Castle, likens it to Kristin Hannah’s wildly popular, The Nightingale. It’s an apt comparison—both feature brave women overcoming nearly unfathomable obstacles. But their association actually made me hesitant to pick it up. Surely the well of enthusiasm for Nazi-related dramas has to be running dry, and if it hasn’t, then an author really needs to “bring it.” Well, that well is still brimming as it turns out, and Ms. Shattuck certainly does. The women referred to in the title are widows of three conspirators involved in the assassination attempt on Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, whose moneyed pedigree has protected her from the more unsavory punishments of the war, has been tasked with locating the other resistance widows, and ensuring their safety. But she is no superhero. Along with the naïve Benita and inscrutable Ania, they represent the everyday, ordinary Germans swept up in the extraordinary, who survived as best they could when the right thing to do wasn’t always clear (or even an option). If you’re curious about what it was like to be a typical citizen during this time--if you struggle to comprehend how a society could become a breeding ground for Hitler’s brand of evil, The Women in the Castle offers some insight. It also draws some chilling parallels to things brewing in the political climate today. Jessica Shattuck has provided a worthy addition to the canon of great WWII literature, one that answers why the appetite for this genre has not abated: In many ways, we still haven’t learned the lessons that history has to teach us. --Erin Kodicek, The Amazon Book Review
“If you love historical fiction, this is your must-read book: It’s captivating, fascinating, and incredibly faithful to the events as they happened, and Jessica Shattuck reveals an entirely new side of what it’s like to be a woman in wartime.” (Newsweek)
“Moving . . . Shattuck’s achievement—beyond unfolding a plot that surprises and devastates—is in her subtle exploration of what a moral righteousness looks like in the aftermath of the war, when communities and lives must be rebuilt, together.” (New York Times Book Review)
“A masterful epic.” (People Magazine)
“A poignant, World War II page-turner.” (Marie Claire)
“Offers a mesmerizing new look at the aftermath of the war . . . with insight and empathy, The Women in the Castle stands tall among the literature that reveals new truths about one of history’s most tragic eras.” (USA Today)
“If you’re a historical fiction fan, this will be your new favorite novel of 2017. It’s so emotionally powerful there’s a chance the literary-induced chills will stay with you well into summer.” (Redbook Magazine, 20 Books By Women You Must Read This Spring)
“Fans of The Nightingale and other classic World War II stories will fall in love with this compelling new perspective on women at war.” (Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of The Summer Before the War and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand)
“Riveting and emotional, The Women in the Castle is a WWII story like you’ve never seen before.” (Bustle)
“For your friend who loves a good war drama. About a woman who plays castle with other war widows across Germany post WWII.” (The Skimm)
“A virtuoso of time and place, Jessica Shattuck has created a heart-smashingly good story that will change the way you look at current events, and leave you asking, ‘What would I do if I were in these characters’ shoes?’ Powerful and prescient, an important book everyone should read.” (Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost)
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Marianne, Benita, and Ania, are the surviving wives of men who participated in the July 20, 1944, failed assassination attempt on Hitler (aka as Operation Valkyrie). Marianne, the strongest and the leader, promised to take care of the wives and children of the would-be assassins (all executed). In a rustic "castle" in northern Germany, the three very different women, with very different backgrounds and war-time experiences, band together to protect their children and each other in the chaotic days following the defeat of the Nazis.
I won't outline to plot except to say that the story is immediately interesting, and provides suspense and mystery as it unfolds over the course of several years. As a piece of historical fiction I learned some things I hadn't known. For example, just after the war and before the Cold War got into full-swing, there was a "Sprunkammer" or a "denazification council" that assigned Germans (including ex-Nazis) to groups based on their "guilt" and they were officially sanctioned accordingly. Shattuck's novel is well-researched and it spun me off on several illuminating Wikipedia trails.
One big question the novel asks is, can you love someone without knowing or caring what atrocities they may have committed in the past? Can one truly have a fresh start? Can it be deserved? Walking down the street in Germany after the war, what kinds of suspicions would one harbor? Did that man execute Jewish children? Did that woman rat out her neighbor? It's a fascinating time and place in history. I also HIGHLY recommend: "City of Women" by David Gillham, and "Skeletons at the Feast" by Chris Bohjalian.
I couldn't put the book down - read it in two days. Four stars because it is just a darn good read - a story well told from beginning to end. Comparing it to the Nightengale, there is less suspense and intrigue - and much more about the emotions of these women - the way they are treated, and how they look at themselves in the aftermath.
It was chosen by the book club as the September read, as there is much to discuss after reading it. So little attention has been given to the Germans who were left behind to scratch out a life - perhaps they had no sympathy or support for Hitler - but they are treated, nonetheless, as the enemy by the Russian invaders - and more sympathetically by the Americans.
It is interesting to find out how life turned out for them. The author obviously spent time on her research, as there is a ring of truth and realism in her writing. I'm looking forward to the discussion of the book in September - and highly recommend the novel - reading it is time well spent.