We’re thrilled that THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck is finally on sale! We love this powerful novel that showcases a side of World War II we haven’t seen before, as well as the vivid characters and historical landscape.
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, The Women in the Castle is a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel. Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.
Listen to a podcast with Jessica Shattuck here: http://www.harperaudiopresents.com/episodes/jessica-shattuck-talks-the-women-in-the-castle/
Purchase a copy from your favorite retailer: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062563668/the-women-in-the-castle
From Jessica Shattuck:
I grew up with a deep sense of shame about being half-German. I didn’t want my mother to pick me up from school because I didn’t want my peers to hear her accent. I didn’t want to complete my fifth grade family tree because my classmates would see that half my tree was German.
This shame was handed down to me by my mother, who came to America in 1963 as a nineteen-year-old au pair and didn’t return home for six years. In the meantime, she received a scholarship to attend college in Southern California, began a Ph.D. in political science, and met and married my father. She did not invite her parents to the wedding. They were poor and Germany was far away—and she was angry at the country of her birth and at her own parents. She was born in the ugliest time of the war, and her parents had been Nazis.
It took me nearly thirty years to be able to admit this. Like many Germans of my generation and my mother’s, I referred to my grandparents’ history—if I referred to it at all—as that of “ordinary Germans.” Yes, I could admit, my grandfather fought in the war, but only as a conscripted soldier in the Wehrmacht. But as modern research and analysis has shown, there was nothing innocent or morally exculpatory about having fought in the Wehrmacht. And, like many—if not most—members of his generation, my grandfather was, at least in the beginning, an enthusiastic Nazi. As was my grandmother.
Which is, actually, the experience of many “ordinary Germans.”
My mother died when I was fifteen, and after her death, I grew more interested in her past and in the question of what it meant to be German. Her stories of growing up in postwar Germany had always served as a chastening counter to my own cushy American life. She walked five kilometers to school barefoot because she had no comfortable shoes; she removed the elastics from her underwear before she washed them so they would last longer; she saw an orange for the first time when she was six years old.
Then, during college, I spent a summer in Germany interviewing my grandmother, who was a remarkably open woman. You could not spend half an hour in conversation with her before she brought up Nazism or the Holocaust. Unlike many Germans her age, including my grandfather, she did not want to sweep these subjects under the carpet. As I knew her, she was not a racist or an anti-Semite. And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.
My grandmother’s story was not my only source of inspiration, though. One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party. It was a reunion of sorts for many widows and children of resisters, full of toasts and skits and reminiscing. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.
Unlike my grandmother, these widows of resisters stood on the right side of history. They were not riven by shame. But they too had lived two lives: the one before the war and the one after. I was, and still am, fascinated by this schism. I have known for my entire adult life that I wanted to write about it.
My grandfather died in 2009, and with him many secrets. He was a difficult and intimidating figure, whom I never felt comfortable questioning. When I did ask, he would answer with scornful evasions. Even before he died, I had begun researching the Nazi youth program he led as a young man, and reading memoirs of Wehrmacht soldiers. I also read my grandmother’s account of her life and the letters and memories of several widows of resisters. The time of World War II and its aftermath ran alongside my own, a current to dip into while sitting and nursing each of my three children or waiting for their swim lessons or reading myself to sleep at night.
And the women in the castle began to present themselves to me: a fierce widow of a resister who could talk Russian soldiers out of looting her home; a beautiful, backwater bride, disappointed by her marriage; an earnest, intense woman whose early embrace of Nazism was modeled on my grandmother’s.
So while The Women in the Castle centers on three nominal widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance. It is also a book about the period after the war rather than the war itself, a time when the guilt of having supported Hitler—of having been complicit in the Holocaust—was driven underground and inward. And this private space of the subconscious and repressed has always been the province of novels.
I have spent the past seven years moving around in this space, considering the questions that have always obsessed me from three characters’ points of view: How did the forces of the time shape the everyday moments of people’s lives? How much did “ordinary Germans” know of what was happening in shtetls and concentration camps? How did some people recognize evil as it unfolded while others remained blind?
In the German language, there are two words for knowing: wissen, which is to know something truly, in a way connected with wisdom (wissenchaft), and kennen, which means to be acquainted with. If knowing exists on a gray scale, then its analog might be the stories we tell ourselves.
Even after all these years, I am not tired of reading, thinking, and writing about this time and the stories people told, and did not tell, themselves. I still haven’t explored all its corners. I don’t know everything. And lately I feel its conflicts and parables running beside us with a particular urgency, crashing over contemporary questions of immigration, religion, and climate change, swirling around our presidential candidates, demanding: Look at me.