Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle is a book I’ve been holding onto for about two years. Published in 2017, I’d been waiting for the right time to read it. After finishing Craig Russell’s The Devil Aspect, set just before the start of WWII, it felt like the perfect time to dive into this novel about the repercussions immediately following the end of WWII.
The Women in the Castle is divided into four parts. Set in Germany, the first part primarily focuses on the aftermath of the war in summer 1945, though some chapters go farther back in time by months or even years, stretching into the 1930s. Part II of the book takes place in 1950, Part III steps back into the space between 1923 and 1935, and the final part of the book looks at the characters decades later, in 1991.
Each of the chapters focuses on one of four main characters: Marianne, Ania, Benita, and Martin. The former three are widowed women, each with children and wildly different experiences leading up to and during the events of WWII. Martin, however, was just a child during all of this, only six years old when the book commences in 1945.
Marianne is the most politically involved, hailing from an upper class family that vehemently opposed Hitler from the beginning. Her husband Albrecht and close friend Connie were both involved with a plot to murder Hitler, a plot which unfortunately failed and led to their executions. Marianne is well aware of the troubles in the world, and she has strong opinions on what should be done and how people should feel about the events of that decade.
Connie left behind his young wife Benita and their son, Martin. Benita comes from a poorer background, having grown up in a small village where people, for the most part, supported Hitler. She herself was apathetic about all things political, and even after marrying Connie, she remained uninvolved with his political dealings. Her beauty led to some terrible experiences during the war, but her love for her son and her faith in love prevail even after all of that.
Ania is the wife of one of Albrecht’s friends; as such, Marianne sought her out, though the two had never met. Little is known about Ania and her two sons and what their past actually held. Most of that isn’t revealed until later in the book, and thus can’t be included here so as not to reveal spoilers.
Without a doubt, The Women in the Castle is a powerful and important book. It’s tender, yet direct, capturing how different people process emotions and perceive the world around them. It looks at WWII and the Hitler regime through different sets of eyes than most books on the subject. Rather than looking at Jewish families, soldiers, or politicians, we get various women – of varying degrees of understanding and opinion – and a look at how they participated in what unfolded and how they overcame it in the aftermath. We see how some people fell into believing in Hitler and his message, at how some people became part of the Nazi party before later realizing what a mistake it was. We see how political involvement and apathy led people in different directions. After the war, we see how widowed women – and one young boy – recover from their terrible losses and the violence and suffering they lived through.
In some ways, The Women in the Castle may at first feel lighter than you’d expect. It’s like reading about normal life, if drastically worse in its circumstances, but these characters feel so… ordinary? Understandable? At first it is surprising, but as the book continues on, you start to understand: These were indeed just normal people, and then they lived through horrific events. Perhaps the point of the book was to show just how ordinary people are, even in the worst of times, and how they can face something so terrible. Some of them are strong and push ahead; others aren’t able to handle all the suffering.
The book does get heavier, especially in Part III. The third part of The Women in the Castle is, in my opinion, the most important and impactful part of the book. We get to see how an average person falls into a belief in the Nazi Party and even becomes an active part of it for several years. If any part of this book should be required reading, it would be the bulk of Part III. Indeed, the parallels between those chapters and what’s happening in our world today are disturbing. Within the setting of the 1930s, you can see why they, at first, believed in what Hitler was saying. But today, with hindsight being 20/20, it’s terrifying to see similar language being used again.
Many parts of The Women in the Castle make you rethink who’s good and who’s bad, and why they are. So many people back then were unaware of what was really happening, and either brainwashed or directly forced into participating in horrific events. It’s fascinating to see how people formulated opinions of and beliefs in things – and even those who remained separate from it for far too long.
The Women in the Castle is a well-written, captivating, and thoroughly important book. However, with its heavy subject matter and sad events in the latter half of the book, it may be hard to truly enjoy it. Even so, I would absolutely recommend this book to others – it’s an illuminating and intimate look inside the worst event of recent history, and it provides a fresh perspective on an endlessly popular literary subject.