Let’s Try This Again

The Women in the Castle

Jessica Shattuck

I like WWII books. If you were to look at my reading history, you would find obvious evidence of this. If I had to choose Atonement or Survival in Auschwitz or even Life After Life would be my favorites. But what a thing to say: I love reading about mass murder, the holocaust, and war. That doesn’t reflect well on me. But I know I’m not alone when it comes to this time period. So what’s wrong with me and everyone else obsessed with WWII? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I blame my own obsession partly on my love for The Sound of Music as a kid. My grandma had the movie on VHS and it was so long that it was on two different tapes. I watched it over and over and over…I also blame it on being American. We were the saviors storming the beaches at Normandy. We were on the side of good and we defeated evil. But WWII, that’s all history; more fiction than fact. A surreal fever dream. Hitler’s as real to me as a red devil with horns. But reading history, even terrible history- there’s comfort there…

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

-James Baldwin

The Sound of Music reminds me of my grandma, so to avoid a circuitous explanation I’ll just use a colon and say: WWII reminds me of my grandma. (Take that as you will…)

So compared to all the books I’ve read about WWII, how’d this one stack up? Well, it was okay. It was less than what I was hoping it would be. What I wanted: “chick-lit” essentially, I wanted the girls to get together in the big castle and make a life together. I wanted friendship, and holidays, tears, and girl talk. I wanted the women to fend for themselves, and be okay.

What this book was not: it was not “chick- lit”, but that would’ve been okay if it had been less than what it was, which was tragedy. That was what WWII was, no? It was tragedy, BUT THIS BOOK!… the setting was after the war, so did it have to be so horribly sad? Reprieve, reprieve!

The Women in the Castle was about Marianne and the women she promised to protect after all the men were killed (resistance fighters who tried to assassinate Hitler). But I didn’t like Marianne, or at least, I didn’t feel close to Marianne, or Benita. Ania’s story was almost too tragic not to feel drawn to, but who she was…I never could tell.

There was something very smart in this novel though, an idea I had not really heard expressed before, and I’ll try to explain it without giving anything away- human rights didn’t exist before WWII. There was no United Nations, or Human Rights Watch. Civil Rights didn’t exist. It wasn’t really a concept yet. Now, these things are all very real. We see images of human rights abuses from all over the world. But, in the 1930’s and ’40’s in Germany, Germans were not inundated with pictures of starving and dying people in Concentration Camps. They were aware that Jews were being taken to “camps” but that was ambiguous. When they heard camps, they thought: camps! Not mass murder. It wasn’t until after the war, and as the war neared its end that they were met with the grizzly pictures, and the truth.

Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi bastards made worldwide human rights a precedent that we try to  pressure all nations to adhere to. I wish we were more successful.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book. It was a solid read. A good history. A quick story.

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