by Steve Pfarrer
THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE
By Jessica Shattuck
World War II can be great fodder for the novel as thriller: evil Nazis and fanatical Japanese, the terror and drama of battle, romance snatched between moments of danger, spies facing down death to try and defeat the enemy.
But Jessica Shattuck’s new novel, “The Women in the Castle,” uses the war to look at the decisions ordinary Germans made — or didn’t make — when their country was taken over by a violent, fascist regime, and how those choices continued to reverberate once the bombs had ceased falling.
Shattuck, who lives in Brookline, based her book in part on her own family’s history — how her German grandparents, on her mother’s side, became early supporters of the Nazis but later claimed not to know about the Holocaust and other atrocities until the end of the war.
Set primarily after the war, with some chapters that look back to the 1920s and 1930s and the rise of Hitler, the story centers on three German widows whose husbands all died following the failed July 1944 attempt to assassinate the Führer; the Nazis executed close to 5,000 fellow Germans in the aftermath.
In June 1945, with the war now over, Marianne von Lingenfels, the widow of a Prussian aristocrat executed for his role in the plot, has vowed to honor her husband’s last wish: to find at least some of the widows of his fellow resisters and give them safe haven in an ancient family castle in Bavaria, where she’s waited out the war with her three children.
She discovers Martin, the 6-year-old son of one of those executed men, her lifelong friend Connie Fledermann, in a Nazi reeducation home. With the boy in tow, Marianne then tracks down Martin’s young mother, Benita, in a devastated Berlin filled with “cavern-like streets piled high with debris. The fronts of buildings rose from the wreckage like jagged cutouts.”
Marianne also makes contact with Ania, another widow, and her two young sons in a dismal camp for displaced persons. Ania says little about how she and her sons ended up there, but it’s clear they’ve suffered: “In the last months, they had become animals, used to sleeping in the open, foraging for sustenance, guarding against predators.”
Marianne’s hope is that the women and their collected children can use their shared bonds to create a family of sorts in the aged Bavarian castle.
But there are any number of barriers, from wounds that are slow to heal — the dreamy Benita had been repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin — to the danger they all face in a war-shattered land, such as the appearance at the castle one day of 50 starving former Russian prisoners of war, who demand food and alcohol.
As the narrative moves to 1950, the past tightens its grip on the women. Who exactly is Ania, and why is she so circumspect about her background? The principled Marianne is also horrified by Benita’s romance with a former German soldier who might have links to civilian atrocities in Poland; she sees it as a betrayal of Connie’s death in his fight against the Nazis.
Yet Marianne, the product of a wealthy upbringing, seems unwilling or unable to understand that not everyone views the world in black and white — or that they may not have the luxury to do so.
In the end, “The Women in the Castle” is a novel centered on character development rather than dramatic plot twists, on ordinary people rather than heroines and villains, and on how decent people can become complicit in mass crimes — as Shattuck writes of one character, “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t.”
Jessica Shattuck will read from her new novel on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.
THE AFRICAN ORCHESTRA
By Wendy Hartmann
Illustrated by Joan Rankin
Crocodile Books, USA/Interlink Publishing Group
Interlink Publishing Group of Northampton, which has released numerous titles dealing with war, politics and social movements in the Middle East, takes a different tack with “The African Orchestra,” a picture book for young readers.
The author and illustrator, both from South Africa, focus on the sights and sounds of nature: from the snap and buzz of cicadas and crickets, to the soft calls of birdsong, to wind in the grass, to the more dramatic “crackling fires, the patter of rain, / thundering hooves on the African plain.”
The book’s creators also make clear that humans are part of this orchestral picture — aligned with nature — whether waving seedpod rattles, banging on drums, or humming songs: “Through African nights / in African days, / THIS is the music / the orchestra plays.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.