How's the view from #TheRightSideofHistory: The Women in the Castle | 2016
"Years later, as a professor, Martin would try to find the words to articulate the power of togetherness in a world where togetherness had been corrupted -- and to explore the effect of the music, the surprising lengths the people had gone to to hear it and to play it, as evidence that music, and art in general, are basic requirements of the human soul. Not a luxury but a compulsion."
- The Women in the Castle, p. 149
The Sum of It:
We enter the story in 1938 amid the glowing lights, effervescent champagne, and glamorously garbed guests of a party held by a countess at an ancient German castle called Burg Lingenfels. The pivotal character, Marianne, helps her elderly relative prepare for the party while her serious husband pores over papers in his office. Marianne supervises the chef, adjusts flowers, and greets guests, including her oldest friend, the dashing Connie, and his new fiance, the beautiful, blonde Benita, all the while balancing the political tension among her guests. Her husband and his friends are concerned about Hitler's rhetoric and military advances, and for them and for Marianne, the tone of the evening shifts from revelry to fear when a Polish visitor arrives breathless with news of what will go down in history as kristallnacht, the looting and destruction of Jewish properties across Germany that signaled a clear and ugly turn from rhetoric to action for Hitler's administration.
The book proceeds from this consequential night to shift back and forth in time and in perspective between characters, always focused on people tied to that night. It doesn't dwell on the time during the war, but mainly on the end and subsequent turbulent years for those connected to Marianne and her husband, largely focused on the perspectives of three women left behind by men taken away by the evils of the war. In order to fulfill a promise made to her friend Connie that night, Marianne does her best to seek out the wives and children of resistance compatriots of Connie and her husband and make them safe in her bedraggled alpine castle. Connie's wife Benita and their son, Martin, eventually join Marianne and her two daughters at Burg Lingenfels. Benita, whose beauty and naivete did her no favors in a Berlin besieged by Russian soldiers, and Martin, plucked from a Nazi orphanage for the children of resisters, are shell-shocked and confused by the consequences of other people's politics. Soon, they are also joined by a Polish woman named Ania and her two sons, Wolfgang and Anselm, who've been living roughly as refugees and keep their past close to their vests. Together they grow vegetables, fend off bands of wandering, hungry Russian soldiers, and cobble together a happy Christmas of chocolate bars sent from American Quakers and an orchestra concert in a partially bombed out church. They guard each other and, even more closely, their own secrets.
The B&C Treatment:
The Women in the Castle, which was released in hardback in 2017 and became available in paperback this month, is a fascinating look at the aftermath of WWII in Germany, and one I certainly recommend. The storytelling here is clear and compelling (aka I finished this book at 3 am because I couldn't put it down), and though we all know the key points of the history behind it, Shattuck's ability to focus on the humanity surrounding the well-trod path of WWII tales provides startling plot twists and thought-provoking personal struggles. The book covers years ranging from 1938 to 1991, and offers insight into the grey areas inherent to the histories of humans, even in a time period that can seem as clear cut as the years surrounding Hitler's rule. Amid vivid descriptions of frozen farmland, bleak forests, and massive, half-ransacked castles, Shattuck explores the complex, hot-and-cold business of being human and accepting the intricate humanity of others. We're shown how people who bought into Hitler's early promises of healthy living and prosperity came to fear the regime after glimpses of the brutality that lay beneath those promises. We also see the bitterness and frustration with their homeland felt by those who mistrusted Herr Hitler from the first and saw their worst fears born out. Shattuck deftly illustrates each perspective, as well as how they would have been forced to interact with and attempt to understand each other while an entire country figured out how to rebuild and move forward.
It was poignant to read what definitely is an historical perspective, from Marianne, who says, "Americans can face the world with open arms because the world hasn't yet come to knock it down." One can certainly see how America's geographical isolation from much of the rest of the world has provided a sheltered development of our own attitudes for many years. The more the globe opens and becomes interconnected, the more we see those once open arms become folded across chests as rhetoric seeks to salve the shifting understanding of the world around us. Books like The Women in the Castle entertain and engage, but also offer us a bit of a caution to take the rhetoric seriously, and to guard the ideals that bind us all together. We have to take care of each other and make more beautiful things, and less of the ugly. #THANKSBOOKS!
You may like The Women in the Castle if you like:
- Atmospheric tales about World War II featuring intricate characters such as All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, The Nightengale, by Kristin Hannah, or Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
- Stories focused on the complex layers of female friendships such as The After Party, by Anton DiSclafani, My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, or The Dollhouse, by Fiona Davis.