It’s 1953 and Britain has been a protectorate of Germany for
thirteen years. Instead of WWII, the government of Great Britain agreed
to join the Alliance, Germany’s formation of territories that includes,
among others, France and Austria. There is a protector from Germany, or
the mainland, who oversees the British government and the rules and
regulations implemented with the joining of the Alliance. There is still
royalty, a King and Queen, but it is King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis
who sit on the throne as figureheads. King George V and his family have
vanished, including the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The
Protector, Alfred Rosenberg from Germany, holds all the power and now
lives at 10 Downing Street, London. There is no longer a Prime Minister.
Everything has changed from how it was in the Britain of Before. One of the most jarring changes is in the application of a caste system to the women. After a female’s fourteenth birthday in Britain, she receives a letter to summon her for a classification date. The appointments include physical examinations, which incorporate taking measurements of the skull and close attention to nose shape and eye color, with the results compared to a chart to determine placement. Family history and mental illness are also covered. The caste assigned by the Frauenshaft, or Women’s Services, will follow you the rest of your life unless you get demoted for some reason. Different classifications include, from the top to the bottom, the Gelis, the first, elite class; Klaras, the all-important mothers producing offspring for the Alliance; Lenis, professional women, like office workers and actresses; Paulas, the caring professions of teachers and nurses; Magdas, shop and factory workers; Gretls, the kitchen and domestic staff; and the Friedas, those women over fifty who are widowed or childless. The Friedas live in places called Widowland, the worst possible housing and conditions. They are non-essential in every way. The names for the classifications are taken from women
There are regulations for each caste of women, down to the number of calories they are allocated daily. Also, their hair styles, where to live, shop, eat, go. Rose Ransom’s classification occurred when she was sixteen, and she was luckily assigned top classification, a Geli. None of the women are allowed to vote. Women of childbearing age are supposed to find a husband and bear children for the Alliance. If women lag behind on this responsibility, they will be visited by the authorities and be questioned. To complicate the achievement of having children, there is a scarcity of British men available, as many of them have been sent on Extended National Service for the Alliance, so some women become desperate and place ads in newspapers for husbands. These ads do not draw the most attractive results.
Other adverse changes affecting the people of Britain include more and more raw materials going to Germany and depleting Britain’s supplies of food, clothing material, and even paper. The average Alliance citizen in Britain has “shabby clothes and worn shoes.” Clothing is regulated through a system of coupons, which is, of course, dependent on what caste. Many women have sewing machines to try and piece together clothes to wear. It is mostly noticeable in women’s clothing, as men’s differences aren’t as pronounced. Only the very privileged have cars and decent housing. Religion has been replaced with the Nazi encouragement to worship the Leader (Hitler) and be committed to the Nazi philosophy.
At first there was open resistance to the Alliance by many British citizens, but that was put down quickly and violently, and now the resistance has gone underground. If discovered, insurgents are picked up in vans and taken away, most likely to a “camp. Germany controls the desire to rebel by controlling communication with the outside free world, only allowing Alliance sponsored news on the radio and in the paper and not allowing any travel outside the British Isles. So, most of the population of Britain doesn’t know what’s going on other than in their own backyard and has only their restricted views of truth. Journalists are all under close scrutiny and have to write only what complies with the Alliance message and beliefs. “Life in the Alliance was a process of continual observation. Universal Surveillance, it was called. Eyes followed you everywhere, seen and unseen.” Freedom Radio from America was secretly accessible, but it was risking your life and that of your family if caught, and with neighbors spying on neighbors, few would risk it.
Departments exist to control all aspects of life, to ensure that the past way of life is forgotten and Nazism rules thoughts and actions, such as the Department of Culture. This department deals with literature and music and art and film (movies), not only banning that which is not in sync with the Nazi philosophy and teachings, but it also is tasked with altering the classics of literature to reflect the demoted value of women and their inferiority to men. Some American music is allowed, but not jazz or swing. Art, too, is tightly controlled, with many great artists, such as Van Gogh, labeled degenerate and banned from public viewing. Even the colors allowed to be used in current art are restricted. Only approved movies with approved actors and actresses can be shown at the movie theater, and there is always a newsreel from the Alliance before the movie with propagandized news.
Rose Ransom, English born, is employed by the Ministry of Culture to perform the important job of Alliance “correction” to literature classics. It is through Rose’s eyes readers will experience this nightmare version of 1953 England. Rose is not robotic in her job or her life, but she does adhere to the confines of what is required and/or mandated of her in the world the Alliance has brought to her homeland. She observes the rules of what certain people can and can’t do. Fortunately, she was classified as a Geli, and she is privy to a better life than so many other of her sisterhood in Britain. She sits in the best seats at the movie theater, she receives more rations, she’s allowed access to cafes and restaurants, and has an apartment in a building with its amenities still intact.
Rose is tasked with rewriting the parts of classic literature works that in any way promote women being smarter or more capable than men. This project is part of the Protector’s plan to address the “woman question,” as Assistant Cultural Commissioner Kreuz puts it to her when handing her the job to correct the classic books used in schools. Rather than ban the well-known books, they will be changed so that “no passages would infringe the Alliance line on feminine portrayal,” which is, of course, that women are never superior to men in any way. In the novel Emma by Jane Austen, Rose has to tune the story to show that Emma should not have tried to match someone above their caste, that women should not strive for marriage above their caste. The guidelines Rose is to follow in her “correction” of the stories is that “no female protagonist should be overly intelligent, dominant or subversive, no woman should be rewarded for challenging a man, and no narrative should undermine in any way the Protector’s views of the natural relationship between the sexes.”
But, Rose’s work with altering literature has had an unexpected side effect. She has grown fond of stories and her outlet for it is to tell stories she’s made up to her young niece and to write stories in a journal made from scraps of paper. She hides the journal in the wall of her apartment, as its discovery could result in a demotion of her caste level or worse. So, while Rose operates obediently in the Alliance’s system, she hasn’t lost her imagination, which is something the Alliance fervently wants people to abandon. If one uses their imagination, then a better, different life could be imagined. Martin tells Rose that “books are intellectual weapons,” and she realizes how right he is. The Alliance knows how powerful reading and words can be, so they delay teaching girls to read until they’re eight-years-old and discourage any interest in reading thereafter. With books so hard to come by in the Britain under the Alliance, people may indeed be forgetting its pleasure. Rose has a chilling conversation with Martin, in which he refers to the past and the future: “You know the Party believes there is no shame in illiteracy. We discourage reading for lower orders. It’s hardly revolutionary. American slaves weren’t permitted to read. For centuries Catholics held the mass in Latin. Besides, most people don’t actually want to read. They’d rather listen to the wireless or go to the movies. Once this new television gets off the ground, reading will wither away in a generation, you’ll see. People will fall out of the habit of reading, and once that happens, the mere act of reading will be harder.”
Rose is also caught in a personal relationship with her boss, one that is not of her choosing. The Assistant Cultural Commissioner, Martin Kreuz, who is from Germany, where he has a wife and the perfect family of four children, has chosen Rose to be his mistress, and she has no power to refuse. It’s become a challenge for her to return his affections, but he is not someone she can reject. Even though there is a Department of Morality, and adultery is supposed to be a criminal offense, a blind eye is usually turned to the higher ranking officials’ affairs. Of course, when it serves a purpose, an affair can be a threatening weapon. So it happens that the Director of Cultural Affairs Eckberg uses the threat of exposure of her affair with Kreuz against Rose to obtain her cooperation to spy on a group of Friedas in Oxford. The Freidas are suspected of vandalism, painting feminist quotes from literature on the sides of buildings. This is unacceptable at any time, but with the Coronation and the Leader’s visit nearing, it’s absolutely essential that everything be under control. The Leader will make his first appearance in Oxford on his trip, so Oxford must make a grand impression.
Upon seeing the squalor in which the widows/Friedas live, Rose is appalled by the falling-down houses and lack of food or clothing. Friedas must always dress in black, and the amount of clothing they can have is severely limited. Their rations are miniscule and don’t contain any meat. If not for the vegetable gardens they grow, they would starve. Posing as a researcher for the Protector Rosenberg’s book he is writing on British folklore and historical links to the Germans, Rose is allowed to talk to a small group of the Freidas. It’s ironic that she is asking them to remember the Before, as one of the Alliance’s favorite mottos is “Memory is treacherous.” For the British, “Memory was like a muscle (and) the less you used it, the less it worked.” Rose finds nothing to cast suspicion on the Freidas for subterfuge and returns to London, although she will have to make a second trip to try again.
If staying off the radar is the way to survive in the Alliance, Rose can no longer hope to enjoy that status. As the days grow closer to the inauguration of King Edward and Queen Wallis and the long-awaited visit of the Leader, Rose will find herself in the middle of events she no longer can control. She will face a harrowing experience. Can she get her life back to normal, or what was normal in the Alliance, or does she even want that anymore? Who will get what they want out of the Leader’s visit? Will the cheers for Hitler forever doom England? So much to find out in this amazing story.
I was riveted to the pages of Widowland by C.J. Carey for its spectacular setup of this alternative history for so many reasons. First, there are lots of allusions to factual history behind the story, such as the Bride Schools Erich Himmler and the retaliative destruction of the Czech town of Lidice and murder of its residents. It’s helpful to have some knowledge of Hitler’s Germany when reading Widowland, but even then, I can guarantee that you will fall down rabbit holes looking up more information to fill in some blanks. One of my favorite parts of reading is that a book of fiction can send me Googling as fast as I can for more back story. The horror of Nazi Germany cannot be exaggerated and reading books like Widowland drive home the importance of not letting such a horror get a toehold ever again. Of course, there have been more despots and more atrocities in the world since Hitler, but this story conveys the message that it could happen anywhere.
Is the worst still to come in Rose’s life, in England? What are the “executive orders” Martin Kreuz referred to? Are Great Britain and the rest of Europe doomed to forever live under the Alliance’s/Hitler’s tight control? Can America remain isolated? I will warn readers that this book has a giant cliffhanger, which oddly enough didn’t disturb me, probably because there is another Widowland book coming out in the UK on October 13th, entitled Queen High. I couldn’t yet find the U.S. date, but it shouldn’t be too far behind the UK one.
To close this lengthy review, I will add that the time readers invest in this 400 page book (not really all that long) is time well spent. The pages will seem to fly by, as C.J. Carey casts a spell from the opening pages of this alternative history book and uses her carefully honed talent (as author Jane Thynee) to hold us spellbound until the last chilling sentence. Widowland is not a book to be pigeon-holed by a category such a science fiction, where many alternative history tales are placed. It is as much a thriller as it is any category. The character that receives the only in-depth character development is Rose, but that doesn’t mean that the other characters aren't fascinating. Rose is the vehicle from which we see the story, and it is her thoughts we are privy to. I am sure that Widowland will be up for some well-deserved awards this year. I am eagerly awaiting its sequel.
Link to author Jane Thynee's (C.J. Carey) article on the Nazi Bride Schools