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“The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck is a dynamic novel about three very different widows making their way in Germany after the defeat of Hitler.
Marianne von Lingenfels knew of her husband’s involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. When the men were first formulating their idea in 1938, she hosted a party in her great aunt’s crumbling castle in Bavaria. She promised the men she would look out for the other widows if the plot failed.
In June of 1945 Germany has fallen, and the camps are being opened. People are fleeing on foot from the Russian troops. “It was as if the great continent of Europe had shrugged and sent everyone rolling.”
Marianne and her three children have found refuge in the old castle. They have some food and if they stay and sleep near the kitchen, the old stove provides them enough heat. Remembering her promise, she sets out to find and help the other widows. First, she manages to get Martin, Benita’s son, away from a Nazi reeducation camp.
Benita, a pretty, peasant-looking girl, had no political feelings when she met Connie, and she had no idea he was involved in a conspiracy against Hitler. She was pregnant but not married in 1938 when they came to Marianne’s party. Now, a victim of Russian soldiers in the Eastern Sector, she is gratified and stunned when Marianne shows up with Martin, her son, who had been dragged away from her more than a year earlier.
Marianne also takes in Ania and her two sons; they have been walking westward for several weeks, avoiding the armies. Ania is strong, as is Marianne, so even though they had never met before, they become good friends.
Through their stories, the reader learns of the decisions each woman had to make and their regrets. Ania remembers that when she was first married she walked into a thrift shop and found wonderful shoes and warm coats for her boys – clothes left behind by others. She was thrilled for the life-saving find. But did she really think those clothes had been left behind willingly? At 80, Ania reflects on those memories and tries to explain them to her daughter. She cannot enter a second-hand shop in America now, even though her daughter laughs at that.
This gripping novel will shatter the concept of absolute morality in the face of extremism and is likely to make everyone wonder about what decisions they might have made in similar circumstances.