THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE
By Jessica Shattuck
William Morrow, March 28, 2017
Kindle edition: $12.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
In the fall of 1938, war looms large over Germany. On one fine, crisp November day, however, danger seems far away. Burg Lingenfels Castle is awash in flowers, lights and champagne. Regal women in their finery and furs, husbands in their best formal wear or tailored uniforms, circulate in the immaculate gardens and dine on impeccably prepared delicacies.
Burg Lingenfels is known as the bastion of liberal, bohemian culture, separating those so inclined from the ways of the rigid, proper aristocracy. The Countess von Lingelfels is a rebel who follows her own path, and welcomes those of similar bent. On this night, Marianne von Lingelfels, her nephew’s wife, is acting as hostess. During the evening, Marianne realizes her husband Albrecht, her close friend Martin “Connie” Fledermann, along with several of their friends have been missing for some time. She finds them huddled together in serious discussion. Several of the men, including Connie, are officers in the Army intelligence service. All are united in realizing they must do something to stop Hitler. On this night, they make a desperate plan to end the Third Reich.
Afterward, Connie asks Marianne to take care of his fiancée, Benita and the child she is carrying, if he does not return from his assignment. Marianne doesn’t think Benita, a young, timid woman, the picture of Aryan beauty, worthy of Connie. Still, she agrees. Connie is her closest and dearest friend, and she’d do anything for him. Marianne wants to be part of the Resistance, but Connie tells her that her job is to be the protector of the women and children left behind when their men go off to their destiny.
They go their separate ways during the war. Marianne and her children, tucked away at her secluded family home in Weisslau, endure the war in fairly good shape. Even when her husband is executed by the Nazis as a traitor, her noble ancestry keeps her safe. When the Allies come in, they are considered victims of the Nazis, and are treated well. They return to Burg Lingelfels, now shabby and rundown, and Marianne sets out to do her part as Connie had asked her. Connie’s family was not as fortunate. Benita had been arrested and imprisoned, and by the time Marianne finds her in Berlin, she is battered and bruised in body and soul. Marianne tracks down Connie and Benita’s eight-year-old son Martin in a Nazi Children’s Home, and takes him and his friend Liesel, who has no home to return to, back to the castle. Another of the resistors’ widows, Ania Grabarek, is located, and she and her two young sons join the makeshift family at the castle. The three women begin to rebuild their shattered lives as best they can, and life goes on.
The story is told through alternate timelines, beginning in 1938 and continuing for several years after the war. There have been many novels about the fighting during World War II, but few that examine what the lives of ordinary citizens in Germany was like. It examines how the war began, and how the unthinkable happened under the eyes of so many ordinary people. THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE does a masterful job of revealing the heartaches, tragedies, deprivation, and horrors that befell those on the German home front: the civilians, the German military, refugees fleeing Hitler, and, later, the Russians.
The characters, even the ones who play a small part in the story, are fully fleshed out and unique. Marianne, Benita, and Ania have individual strengths and weaknesses that they combine to get their families safely through Hell and on to rebuild their shattered lives. This is a heart-wrenching novel about the strength of the human spirit even in the worst of situations. It is a meticulously researched historical novel about life for the ordinary and extraordinary people in the Third Reich. Highly recommended.
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