Wednesday, May 12, 2021

‘The Women in the Castle’ by Jessica Shattuck




“Suddenly she saw everything in its harsh, naked state. She felt the pulse of the lives lived inside the mean little house she passed: selfish or generous, kind or unkind, ugly or tolerable, almost all of them sad. And she saw the histories of the people passing by like x-rays stamped on their faces—ugly, mutinous tracings of dark and light: a woman who had ratted out a neighbor, a man who had shot children, a soldier who had held his dying friend in his arms. Yet here they were, carrying groceries, holding children’s hands, tuning their collars up against the wind. As if their moments of truth—the decisions by which they would be judged and would judge themselves—hadn’t already come and passed.”



I am a firm believer that you can never prepare for every situation in life. And there are some life experiences so outside the norm, there is no way to guess how you would react. We’re all experts at critiquing other people’s choices and proclaiming how we would do it differently. But what would you do when all your choices are taken away with the exception of, “What can I do to survive?”

“The Women in the Castle,” by Jessica Shattuck, is an enormously emotional book set in WWII Germany that follows three women, Marianne von Lingenfels, Benita Fledermann and Ania Grabarek, and the choices they had to make to survive.

Marianne, Benita and Ania’s lives become intertwined because of their husbands’ decision to assassinate Hitler. During the planning, Marianne is declared “Commander of Wives and Children” by her dear friend Connie Fledermann, Benita’s husband. She promises to find and rescue the wives and children of the resistors should the plot fail. The plot fails on July 20, 1944 and the men are tried and executed.

Marianne is the matriarch and proudly puts on her commander cloak to begin the search for the resistors’ wives and children. Her aristocratic upbringing affords her and her children deferential treatment, even though her husband was hanged as a co-conspirator. She has the clearest conscious of all the women, agreeing with her husband’s politics from the start. Indeed, if Marianne were a man, she would have been in the thick of the plans and gone willingly to the gallows if caught. I applaud Marianne’s moral fortitude but it also causes a lack of compassion that creates problems in ways she could never have foreseen. She chooses not to understand viewpoints and circumstances outside her own moral compass.

Benita is the ingénue, a classic German beauty with pale blue eyes and blonde hair. She is fully aware of these assets and uses them to get out of the small town where she was born. Marianne rescues Benita from a horrible place in Berlin and they form a tentative friendship. Benita never has an interest in politics and willingly turns a blind eye to what has happened in Germany. She is childlike and maddeningly obtuse but has the most tragic story of them all.

Ania Grabarek is a realist and the last woman that Marianne rescues. Ania carries many, many secrets that we learn throughout the course of the book. I am not going to spoil any of these secrets, as they generated the most thought provoking questions.

There is one more point of view that we hear from in “The Women in the Castle,” and it’s not a woman at all. Martin Fledermann, Benita’s son, is the child observing the adults (and world) around him. While the other children living in the castle have brief speaking roles, Martin is the only one we are invited to truly learn about, from the time he is rescued by Marianne to his new life in America.

Shattuck has broken the novel into four sections set mainly after the war has ended. These stories are at the fringe of the war – we’re never caught in the middle of a battle but instead learn about the daily life of survival from the women and children living it. There are some pre-war backstories but the bulk of the stories start in 1945 and end in 1991. Part Two, set in 1950, is particularly interesting as the women try to orient themselves to a post-war Germany. It is easy to imagine their individual experiences were mirrored by thousands of other Germans, a return to normalcy that seems more like a movie than reality.

Shattuck took great pains to be accurate not only with the history, but the emotions. In the P.S. at the end, she describes her motivations. She interviewed relatives who lived through the war as well as her mother’s best friend, whose father was one of the men executed for his role in the assassination attempt. These first and second hand accounts help set the stage for truly believable characters and emotions. It is easy to look around and draw comparisons between the world today and the world during WWII. And at times I wondered if Shattuck was purposely driving a certain narrative. But it doesn’t take long to realize that she is only describing the truth as it was at the time. These words were said. These things happened. It is up to us to make as many, or as few, comparisons as we want.

There is an abundance of excellent WWII novels on the market. Do you have any favorites? Can you think of another period in time that has produced such an inexhaustible supply of intriguing stories?

Thank you for your time!

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events at the Marco Beach Ocean Resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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