Friday, May 13, 2022

Writing an Impossible Story



HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: A thought-provoking post today. A tough one. But the brilliant Aimie K. Runyan knew she had a terrific story. A shocking story. A heart–breaking story. A story that would be based on impossible facts.

How was she going to tell it–and make it ..real? And readable? And important?

As you'll see, it’s a challenge that would have been far too daunting for some. But after reading THE SCHOOL FOR GERMAN BRIDES, the amazing Pam Jenoff said: “This is a moving and memorable tale of sisterhood, strength, and survival, which will resonate deeply with readers of historical fiction.”

And now, Aimie tells us how she got there.


Intimacy with Evil

     by Aimie K. Runyan

Sometimes a book requires an intimate relationship with evil. Perhaps you’re writing a book from the point of view of a serial killer (not the benevolent Dexter sort). Perhaps you’re writing a book from the point of view of an abusive narcissist. Or perhaps, like me, you’re writing about willing members of one of the most evil political movements in the history of mankind—the Nazi party.

World War Two fiction, which has always had a large following, is huge at the moment. So many of the books deal with the heroic people in the resistance movements in Britain and France. They’re able to show the good guys in vivid detail while the bad guys are depicted as a faceless, looming menace. It absolutely works as a storytelling device because it’s certainly the way the Nazi presence felt to many.

While working on another book, I stumbled across the history of Hitter’s bride schools; real schools throughout Germany in the 1930s and 40s designed to train women to be dutiful housewives and mothers, all the while brainwashing them with Nazi propaganda. The goal was to encourage women to have as many healthy “Aryan” babies as possible, and to raise them in the Nazi tradition so that the ideology would proliferate over generations. I knew that this needed to be the subject of a novel. And to do it right, I’d have to delve into the psyche of monsters.

It was going to be hard. It was going to be uncomfortable. It was going to be incredibly risky.

The first, and simplest rule I followed was remembering that no one, no matter how awful, is without some redeeming feature. But writing Nazis is far more fraught. I needed to humanize the characters whose beliefs were completely abhorrent. The antithesis of everything I hold dear.


My goal with The School for German Brides
was to show how the evil of the Nazi ideology subtly and slowly seeped into people’s daily lives and made them either directly accountable for acts of hatred, or else complicit in them. It required me to explore them as three-dimensional people, but I was terrified that people would think I was in any way sympathizing with any members of a group that were responsible for one of the most horrific acts of genocide in human history. It was a razor-thin line to walk.

The hard truth was that my characters had to be multi-layered, fully realized people with their own hopes and dreams. They may have a warped world view. They might well be on the sociopathic spectrum. But they had to be handled with the same complexity as any other character I’d created in the past. If I didn’t, they would become mustache-twirling vaudevillian villains tying damsels to railroad tracks. 

And it would do no justice to the story that needed to be told.

I won’t pretend it was easy to think of how these characters had some redeeming qualities. How Aunt Charlotte wished to love Hanna like the daughter she never had but always wanted, for example. But my consolation was that I had to explore and understand this evil in order to do my part to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

And so, I leave it to you: is it worthwhile to explore the humanity of evil characters so as better understand how the evil came to be? Have you read good examples of this in others’ work? Have you done this in your own work? What techniques did you use to make it successful?

HANK: Isn’t this chilling?  Isn't it haunting? Can't you just picture it? What questions do you have for Aimie?


Aimie K. Runyan writes to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. She has been honored as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice selection, as a three-time finalist for the Colorado Book Awards, and as a nominee for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer of the Year. Aimie is active as an educator and speaker in the writing community and beyond. Her next book, A School for German Brides, has just released from William Morrow. She lives in Colorado with her amazing husband, two (usually) adorable children, and two (always) adorable kitties. To learn more about Aimie, please visit www.aimiekrunyan.com.



THE SCHOOL FOR GERMAN BRIDES


In this intriguing historical novel, a young woman who is sent to a horrific "bride school" to be molded into the perfect Nazi wife finds her life forever intertwined with a young Jewish woman about to give birth.
Germany, 1939

As the war begins, Hanna Rombauer, a young German woman, is sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother's death. Thrown into a life of luxury she never expected, Hanna soon finds herself unwillingly matched with an SS officer. The independence that her mother lovingly fostered in her is considered highly inappropriate as the future wife of an up-and-coming officer and she is sent to a "bride school." There, in a posh villa on the outskirts of town, Hanna is taught how to be a "proper" German wife. The lessons of hatred, prejudice, and misogyny disturb her and she finds herself desperate to escape.

For Mathilde Altman, a German Jewish woman, the war has brought more devastation than she ever thought possible. Torn from her work, her family, and her new husband, she fights to keep her unborn baby safe. But when the unthinkable happens, Tilde realizes she must hide. The risk of discovery grows greater with each passing day, but she has no other options.

When Hanna discovers that Tilde is hiding near the school, she knows she must help her however she can. For Tilde, fear wars with desperation. The women must take extraordinary risks to save the lives of mother and baby.

Will they both be able to escape with their lives and if they do, what kind of future can they possibly hope for?

59 comments:

  1. Goodness, Aimie, this sounds like an amazing story . . . I must admit that I’m intrigued and am looking forward to reading your book. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the women in that “school.”
    May I ask what you found to be the hardest part of “humanizing” your Nazi characters?

    I think that, yes, it is worthwhile to explore the humanity of evil characters . . . there’s never a downside to understanding someone [even if they’re evil] or seeing how something came to be. Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” comes to mind as an evil character . . . although I’m not certain Shakespeare gave readers any clues as to his humanity since he’s cunning, ruthless, and remorseless throughout the play . . . kind of like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” . . . .

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 13, 2022 at 8:41 AM

      Those are such interesting choices as villains! I’m not sure there’s ever been a paragraph before that compares Iago to Miss Trunchbull!

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    2. Well, they are both evil, each in their own way . . . .

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    3. Hi Joan! I think the hardest character for me was Friedrich, the SS Guard that Hanna's family so desperately wants her to marry. On the scale of good and evil, he definitely skews the most evil as far as I'm concerned and it was so hard to think of ways to make him more human and relatable. It meant delving deep into the psyche of someone with reprehensible beliefs. But the goal was to NOT turn him into Miss Trunchbull (my kids LOVE that book BTW. My Miss Trunchbull voice is spot on, if I do say so myself) because that sort of "pure evil" only exists in the eyes of children who don't fully grasp the nuance of character. I hope I was successful, at least in some measure.

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    4. "Matilda" is my daughter's favorite book, too. And while Miss Trunchbull isn't truly the same sort of evil as other fictional characters, I expect it takes the same amount of skill on the part of the author to make the character be so believable for the children who read and love the book.

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    5. Oh yes, Roald Dahl was clever at how he portrayed the "bad guys" in his books. The Wormoods too.

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  2. It sounds fascinating and I look forward to it! As a middle-school history teacher, I used a remarkable, short documentary by the BBC, History File: Youth in Nazi Germany, to teach students how Nazi propaganda was used to brainwash German children from a young age. (Most of the S.S. officers began as Hitler Youth.) Through the experiences of Henry Metelmann, 10 when Hitler came to power in 1933, students were able to see how repellent doctrines could be fed, seductively, to an entire population. It's chilling.

    I had never heard of the bride schools and look forward to reading about them!

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    1. wow, what an astonishing lesson you taught. What kind of reactions did you get from the kids (and parents!)?

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    2. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 13, 2022 at 8:42 AM

      Oh, what a life changing and valuable lesson! I wonder if that documentary still exists?

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    3. The Hitler Youth and BDM movements were some of the most effective tools in the Nazi arsenal, sad to say. That so many of those young men became SS officers is no surprise, but then again, membership was compulsory for a. long time and was the *only* youth organization available to boys (and BDM for girls) so even if it hadn't been compulsory, it would have been popular. Children feel a strong need to belong, and the Hitler Youth movement fed on that need. They also trained kids to spy on their parents and other adults in their lives, so it helped fuel the nationalistic furor. What an important lesson you taught those students!

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    4. Here is a link to the short documentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpqY2W815iA All of the copies I could find were muddy, but the the documentary pulls children in regardless. It was my habit to always teach my students concepts and vocabulary before showing them any video, so that when they watched they felt smart and informed. (A secondary goal.) So for this class, we'd have 10 minutes of vocab, 25 minutes for the video, and 10 minutes for guided discussion ("Why do you think one of the first things a dictator does is take control of schools and textbooks?" "Why did Hitler establish summer camps for children? What was different about these camps from a camp you might attend?" "Why did he provide free Hitler Youth uniforms to poor children?" "Why such a focus on children at all?") They always came to the conclusion that Hitler was both evil and clever (more clever in this sick sense than Mussolini and Stalin, who mostly depended upon violence and fear). At the end of the year when we briefly studied the Red Guards the students recognized all of Mao's tactics.

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    5. Wow! Thank you! What an interesting reference!

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  3. First, I loved your book! WWII historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, not because of what the Nazi’s did but because the strength of the characters who didn’t support the Nazi’s. Sometimes, as in your book, they had to go along with them to protect themselves and their family. I just finished The Memory Keeper of Kyiv about the forced famine of the Ukrainians by Russia. It was at times difficult to read but it’s important as I had no idea that time existed. It is important to read about the past to become aware. Humans can be cruel. Bringing to light the bad things in our past is the only way to remember the strength of the people who went through it and remember and honor them.

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    1. I've not hear of the Memory Keeper book either. I think you are right about shining a light on what was ugly in the past...

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    2. Yes I remember how shocked I was recently about the Tulsa race massacre. How did I not know about that? How were we not taught that?

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    3. First, thank you so much for the compliment! German Brides was a challenging book to write, precisely for the reasons you mention; it's a deep-dive into some of the worst parts of human nature. That said, it was an important book to write for the same reason. I remember the first time I tried writing a book (high school-ish) and my grandmother read a chunk of it. She asked why I made a particular character so mean to the main character, and I responded "no one will read a book about nice things happening to nice people". Past Aimie understood that important lesson. The reason? We are hard-wired as a species to want to *learn* from stories. And exploring these hard topics can, I hope sincerely, keep them from happening all over again.

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  4. Congratulations, Aimie, on challenging yourself and diving deep into a dark topic. The book sounds like a must-read! I also had never heard about the bride schools.

    I do try to make my bad guys human - this one adores cats, that one loves to contra dance, another had a horrible childhood - but I've never written Nazi-level bad guy...

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    1. Yes, it's such a difficult thing.Yes, those bits of humanity are so powerful at making the evil worse--but it's very very tricky in Aimie's situation, don't you think?

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    2. It IS hard. This isn't just "crappy neighbor who won't repair his fence" bad. This is someone with a fundamentally *evil* (and I don't use that term lightly) world view. To do so with nuance was so challenging. Not just because it meant getting inside the head of the bad guys, but because it would be awful to come across as sympathetic to them.

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  5. AIMIE: Wow, congratulations on writing THE SCHOOL FOR GERMAN BRIDES. I used to read a lot of spy fiction set in WWII in the 1980s and 1990s but those books were usually written from the POV of the British agent or French resistance fighters. I had no idea that German bride schools existed...chilling thought.

    But I am glad to see that Hanna and Tilde will be helping each other survive this difficult period in their lives.

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    1. Such a chilling thought! And I too, had no idea...

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    2. I actually got goosebumps when I read about them while doing research for Across the Winding River. I thought of it as The Nazi Stepford Wives and couldn't shake the idea to do a book about it for a couple of years. Such twisted history has to be told.

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  6. Aimie, do you think you did justice to the historical facts, and what kind of references did you find to discover them in the first place? Surely, there are none of those brides still alive, so you must have had to use letters and other references. Such an intriguing--and chilling--idea, to indoctrinate those most likely to teach the next generation how to hate.

    And can't we find a less sinister, but no less insistent and insidious parallel in our own society? That must have occurred to you so many times while writing.

    Congratulations on the release. This sounds like a future book club choice!

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    1. Oh, yes, big parallels! Terrifying. And agree--a BIG book club choice!

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    2. Sorry I missed this one earlier! I found some archival resources. A lot of the information on the bride schools was just declassified in 2013-14 so it's not the subject of a lot of academic research. That said, Frauenwarte, the women's magazine published by the Nazi party had tons of information on the Nazi philosophy toward women. I did everything I could to be as faithful to the history as I could. I and I think I was pretty successful. I do think there is a movement here in the US to send women back to the kitchens, and it's horrifying. I do worry a lot about my daughter's future.

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  7. In Germany in the 1930's, women had to actually attend these schools, children had to attend the camps for their indoctrination. Not so now, when the Alex Jones of the world can reach a million followers on Facebook and declare the parents of murdered kindergarteners and first graders to be actors. How about the million or so people who believe that birds aren't real? Who benefits from that bit of crazy?

    Congratulations on you new release, Aimie. It sounds like quite a challenge to find humanity in monsters. There are two characters in Deborah Crombie's And Justice There Is None who are responsible for much evil, and yet, each one garners some sympathy over the course of the story.

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    1. Birds aren't real? How is that a thing?

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    2. Or all the loonies who are convinced that the earth is flat?

      One of my classmates from high school once told me he "never believes anything on the Internet". Which floored me. And guess where he gets most of his "facts".

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    3. An interesting parallel. Of course the Bride Schools weren't compulsory. In fact, it was considered a great honor to get a place in one. But with the wave of mis-information and the pernicious ideas of some extremist ideologies, at least we have the freedom to consume media judiciously and to think critically about it. That wasn't an option in Hitler's Germany where all media was state controlled. It may not be much comfort, but at least we still have the freedom of choice!

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  8. Very interesting. I started watching a movie about a school in England for the daughters of high-ranking German officials. I gather the purpose of the school was the same as the schools for brides. The movie is Six Minutes to Midnight, starring Judi Dench. According to IMDB that school was based on a real-life school in England.

    Aimee, I believe your book will be an important one to be read and discussed by all. Congratulations!

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    1. OH, that sounds familiar somehow! Looking that up right now...

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    2. That movie sounds incredible, and I admire Judi Dench so much as an actor. Will look it up! And thank you so much. I hope it is a tool for opening dialogue.

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  9. Oh gosh, definitely worthwhile to write about... and brave. Your new book sounds so compelling - Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you so much! I hope it sparks a lot of healthy conversation.

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  10. Aimee, reading the descriptions of your two main characters, I can see how you found your way into this story. There must, I hope, have been some women who went into those schools and resisted, at least covertly, the propaganda. Another book that dealt with a modern-day horror story was Ausma Zehanat Khan's THE UNQUIET DEAD. I remember the images of the Bosnian-Serbian war on tv and was shocked by them--seeing a modern nation torn apart like that. But I had no idea of the extent of the atrocities until I read Ausma's novel--the whole idea of the Serbs' establishing rape camps for Bosnian Muslim women profoundly shocked me. We think we are so civilized--and beneath the surface there exists these kinds of acts. And the news coming out of Ukraine--there are stories there waiting to be uncovered and told, I am sure. I couldn't go there in my writing, Aimie--it takes courage and strength.

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    1. I admit, it was a hard book to write at a hard time. I don't think I could have written a light and fun book at that point in my life (recently divorced) and for all of us (during the height of the Covid stay-at-home orders). But I've found the hardest things are often those that are most worth doing. Thank you so much for your comment!

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  11. AIMIE: Congratulations on your new novel and welcome to Jungle Reds! I have been seeing your novel often in the bookstagram community over at Instagram. I entered the giveaway for your novel at Goodreads. I do not think I won, though. I look forward to reading your novel. Though I did not know about the "school for German brides", I knew about the Nazi breeding program called ? Lebershon ? When I was in school, I took a psychology class and I had to write a paper about a psychology topic from the newspapers. I happened to read an item in the Sunday paper about a Gay man who was born as a result of the Nazi breeding program. By the time I read the article, he was an Adult. His Nazi parents rejected him because he was Gay. Later, I read about how the Armistice to end the First World War did a lot of harm to Germany. By the time the Nazis rose to power, the Germans felt that they had Nothing to lose.

    There is a recent series on PBS called Ridley Road about how several Jews in England were able to defeat the Fascists in England in 1962. Someone said that the Fascists recruited young people from borstals or prisons ?

    Question(s): Was it emotionally difficult to write about the School for German Brides? How were you able to put aside your personal feelings to focus on writing this novel?

    Diana

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    1. Hi Diana! Thank you for your kind words. Lebensraum was the Nazi belief that they needed more "living space" (the literal translation of Lebensraum) for the expansion of the aryan race. It was emotionally hard to write the story, yes, but the important thing was to put my own feelings aside and do what I could to write the characters fairly. Even the evil ones. In the end, there are few characters in the book who are wholly "good" and I think that's accurate for the human experience.

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  12. HANK: I hope that things will work out well for both the German lady and the Jewish lady in the end. And I can see them picking up the broken pieces after the war.

    Diana

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  13. You'll have to read to find out! ;-)

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  14. That must have been the most compelling book to write and the hardest! And yet we see it again and again. People will drink the Kool-aid. "Educating" the children is always a vital step. Remember how awful Mao's Great Leap Forward was? Children and young adults were turning in their families for not conforming to Mao's wishes. The promises of progress and stability are hard to ignore when everyday life has been so difficult.

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    1. Yes, we see in oppressive regimes time and time again how children are tragically used as a tool for gaining control of society. It's horrifying to see it in the past, terrifying to see shades of it in the future. And it is always done in the guise of "protecting the children". It was a hard book to write, as you say, because of these issues.

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  15. I am about to teach a. class.. this discussion is amazing! Back in a couple of hours..xoxoo But I will sneak read! xxx

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  16. While the Nazi ideology was undoubtedly the most loathsome to date, parts of the goals and ideas of the "bride school" have been used in so many cultures whenever men have been threatened with the progress of women, when birthrates of the right sort of people have fallen, and always, always when authoritarians come into power. Step one in the authoritarian playbook around the world is to confine women to their most traditional roles of childbearing and homemaking.

    So no, I don't think it would be difficult to see the humanity of the young women caught up in this movement - all you need to do is read a Home Ec manual from an American high school post WWII, or see the unrelenting depiction in our print, movies and TV of women's highest calling during that period. It wasn't exactly kinder, k├╝che, kirche, but it had some uncomfortable similarities. And gosh, who knows? We may be seeing an exciting replay in our own time, soon...

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    1. Oh, I hear you. The Nazi ideology about the role of women was extremely retrograde, even for the 1930s and 40s. The women in the bride schools were easier to humanize. The people who shoved them into this Nazi Home-ec-with-a-steaming-side-dish-of-propaganda were harder to sympathize with. What I find interesting is that Russia, also very authoritarian under Stalin, took the opposite approach to women's rights, at least on paper. Stalin emancipated women in 1936, but of course law and social reality are not always the same. America and Britain fell in the middle, though neither were a haven for women's rights.

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    2. It fascinates me that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, so far apart in some ways, both had state awards for women with exceptionally large families.

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    3. Aimie, given Stalin's infamous lack of interest in any human rights, I cannot believe his support of women's rights was anything more than a ploy to have more worker bees and cannon fodder. But the difference on paper IS striking.

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    4. Julia, you're right. Especially after WWII had such a toll on the Soviet population, large families were praised and encouraged. In that instance, it made a LOT of sense. 28,000,000 Soviet deaths during the war made for some pro-natal policies. And adkmilkmaid, so true. Stalin, at the beginning of the war, had plenty of able-bodied people under his command, so he was fine sending women to the front lines and to factories. The official line didn't change until they needed more babies.

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  17. Aimee, let me first say that I will definitely be reading your book. The School for German Brides is on a subject that became a rabbit hole for me after reading another book. Widowland by C.J. Carey is a book I think you would be interested in, too, Aimee. It is 1953 and England didn't go to war with Germany, but they instead signed to be part of the German Alliance and are now a protectorate of Germany. Anyway, this is where I first came across the bride schools, the brain child of Henrich Himmler, who wanted his SS men to marry only the best, most dedicated to the cause women. I hope you don't mind if I put the link to my review of Widowland. At the end of the review is a link to an article about the bride schools. And, I do think it's worthwhile to look at the humanity of evil characters, because even though the evil in them is the part of them we focus on, they don't exist in a vacuum of evil. The juxtaposition of a character's evil doings with his/her moments of family time or passion for the arts or whatever personal life can be a gobsmacking revelation. Of course, when you realize that this evil person is tender with his children or is thrilled by a piece of music, there is even more shock that the person can do the evil he/she does.

    Here's my link to my Widowland review. https://www.readingroom-readmore.com/2022/03/widowland-by-cj-carey-reading-room.html

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    1. Ooooh, will look that up. It sounds fascinating!

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    2. Aimie, my apologies for spelling your name wrong. Let me know if you read Widowland.

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  18. I read and agree with Julia's comment. The women were not necessarily evil, the dogma was evil and the active proponents. I imagine it was a very difficult story to write. I am looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Well, I would argue that as girls they were pushed into it, but as they got older, they became complicit. But it is so very hard to break out of the mould society places you in. I felt a lot of pity for the young women who were brainwashed. And the children, too.

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  19. Aimie, brava for taking this on and showing how evil can proliferate while taking advantage of many aspects of life. Many Germans were financially hurting and as they say, "Follow the money." It's difficult to know what it's like to be in someone's shoes when faced with either-or situations and brainwashing. I'm sure you did an empathic job while giving us one of the women to root for. Congratulations on going forth! Very brave!

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  20. Thank you so much for the kind words. It is definitely no surprise to me that hungry lambs would follow the cleverest wolf. It’s no excuse, but I think we learned the level of desperation caused by the Treaty of Versailles and poverty in the axis countries after WWI was something we can’t allow to have happen again.

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  21. This sounds amazing, Aimie. I am in awe of your determination to tell this story. Very courageous. I can't wait to read it!

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