SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Women Of The Castle," the new novel by Jessica Shattuck, tells the story of three women and their children who take refuge in the ruins of a Bavarian castle at the end of World War II. The women are war widows - war resistance widows, really - whose husbands paid for their lives in the July 1944 plot against Adolf Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels promised those who conspired with her husband she would find and protect their families, but the support they give one another is tinged with regrets and guilt about their different pasts and set against a deprivation for which the world has little sympathy. Jessica Shattuck joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.
JESSICA SHATTUCK: Thanks so much for having me.
SIMON: In a sense, is this a story that began in your mind when you were a child and visited your grandparents?
SHATTUCK: It is. I grew up - my mother was German, so I grew up going to visit my grandparents in the summers. And I also grew up with a very strong sense of shame about being half German. And I think that's because my mother raised me that way. She had come to America when she was 19 and didn't go back home for seven years, I guess. And so I think I had this sort of dueling situation where I would visit my grandparents on their farm in Germany. And I loved going there, and I loved my grandparents. But I also knew that there was a very dark history, and I felt very conflicted about that.
SIMON: You saw a picture of your grandfather once that stayed with you.
SHATTUCK: Yeah. I loved to look at the old photo albums with my grandmother. And at some point, we came across some pictures of my grandfather in Nazi uniform. And suddenly I had a whole different sense of what it was they had been a part of. I knew they had led these kind of agricultural youth programs, but seeing that he was wearing a Nazi uniform while leading those programs really drove home the point that their "ordinary German," quote-unquote, experience was that of Nazis.
SIMON: Tell us about the Germany in which you set your story. Marianne seeks out Martin, a 6-year-old boy, and then his mother, Benita, who - beautiful woman who's fallen into the hands of the Red Army. And then Ania and her two sons are in a displaced persons camp. These are families of the very tiny group of people we would identify as the resistance in Germany, but that doesn't mean they were always there, does it?
SHATTUCK: No. And in the case of these three characters, they're very different. They really span the different ends of the political experience of Germany at that time because Marianne is a true resister who very early on saw what was happening in Germany around her and recognized the evil that was transpiring as it unfolded. And then on the other hand, there's Benita, who was fairly apolitical. And Ania, the third character - she allowed me to really explore the experience of someone who's truly enamored of the Nazis in the beginning.
SIMON: Yeah. Marianne really is a kind of civilian commander, (laughter) in all ways, of this group, isn't she?
SHATTUCK: Yeah. In the preface of the book, we see the resisters originally coming together and starting to think of conspiring. And in the context of that, Marianne offers to be the commander of widows and orphans, should it come to that. And it's sort of an offer she makes somewhat in jest. It doesn't feel real at that time - that it could get to that level. But then in the end, her own words come back to haunt her. And that's what inspires her to bring the other two together and to keep searching for others, as well.
SIMON: I want to be careful with historical analogies because Nazi Germany is the precedent that people - it seems of all political stripes - cite as the nightmare we want to avoid. But what about readers who see parallels between the 1930s Germany in your book and in history and anything we're living through today.
SHATTUCK: I think, for me, what I felt was really relevant when I was writing this book was the question of - what did ordinary Germans, the people whose lives sort of touched very peripherally on the darkness experienced during that time - and how did they let this happen? How did they either not see it or blind themselves to it?
It felt to me like those questions started to - are becoming more and more pertinent in America. And there was very little written about them as I started to investigate what other books were out there. The lens through which we see the Holocaust and World War II is so often the very important lens of the victim's perspective and the perspective of the Allies and the liberators. But then I feel like now that that has become part of our canon, we can also step back and start thinking how and starting to look at the German experience - the experience of the complicit and the enablers.
SIMON: Should it make us wonder if we would have behaved any differently if we'd been around then?
SHATTUCK: I think that's always the question. And I think we all would like to think the answer is, yes, of course, we would have behaved differently, but it's complicated. And the closer you look at it, the closer you can understand and come to relate and see how even good and decent people can start to do terrible things or be involved with terrible things.
SIMON: Jessica Shattuck - her novel, "The Women In The Castle" - thank you so much for being with us.
SHATTUCK: Thank you so much for having me.