Jessica Shattuck wrestles with her family's Nazi history in "The Women in the Castle"
Jessica Shattuck says that it wasn’t a big secret in her family. She always knew her grandparents were “ordinary Germans” during and before tWorld War II. “But in my late teens, I grasped that they had also enthusiastically joined the Nazi party in the late 1930s,” Sattuck said. Learning this family history from her grandmother prompted Shattuck to begin writing what became her new book, The Women in the Castle, which she'll read from, discuss, and sign at Nicola's Books on Friday, Jan. 12.
Set in the years after World War II, the novel follows the lives of three women, all of whom are widows of conspirators in the attempted assassination of Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels honors her promise to a late resistance fighter and rescues two other widows and their children from varying degrees of post-war horror. She assembles the makeshift family in her late husband’s ancestral home -- once a grand castle, now a crumbling relic in Bavaria. Marianne presumes that the shared experiences and hurt will bind the six of them together but quickly learns that any sort of peace between them will not come easily or without great cost. The book takes an in-depth look at the aftermath of the war from the German perspective, looking unflinchingly at how people survived and not sparing details about challenges faced by everyone, especially women.
“I grew up with my mother’s stories about that time after the war," Shattuck said. "Walking to school barefoot, harvesting on the farm by hand, never having quite enough to eat. ... I also grew up with her sense of shame of being German -- there was lots of shame and embarrassment from Germans.”
There was also tension about roles played in the war. “One of my grandfathers fought for Germany and the other was a decorated Marine captain," Shattuck said, "and as I got older, I became more interested in learning about what all of these stories meant. My grandmother answered my questions honestly and was very forthcoming.”
Shattuck’s grandparents were attracted to the party more by promises of opportunity for Germans and national renewal. Both were leaders in a program that provided a year in the country and agricultural training for teenagers; Shattuck’s grandmother actually saw this as an example of promoting equality as children of different classes worked and lived alongside each other. Her grandmother wished for a return to a more traditional Germany, stating that she did not see any atrocities against Jews in the countryside where she lived. She also told Shattuck that she didn’t listen to everything Hitler said but that he did blame some anti-Semitic accusations on “Allied propaganda.”
While there are parallels to be drawn between charges of Allied propaganda and “fake news,” the book was delivered to the publisher before the 2016 presidential election. “My big takeaway is how powerful narrative can be and how important it is to separate spin from fact," Shattuck said. "Many Germans believed what Hitler told them -- that Jews were part of an international conspiracy -- and so they didn’t think too hard about the (death) camps. The danger is that if you start viewing everything as propaganda, then you don’t believe anything. There is no agreed upon gold standard of truth now.”
Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.
Jessica Shattuck reads from, discusses, and signs "The Women in the Castle" on Friday, Jan. 12, at 7 pm at Nicola's Books, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor. Free. The talk will be facilitated by U-M professor Laura Hulthen Thomas. Visit nicolasbooks.com for more info.