Widowland by C. J Carey

Widowland by C. J. Carey. Naperville, Illinois : Sourcebooks Landmark, [2022]

Widowland by C. J Carey

All I can say about Widowland is, wow. This book pulled me in from the first page, and I had trouble putting it down.

Widowland is an alternate history historical fiction, in a world where England created an “Alliance” with Germany in the 1930s. It is now the 1950s, and England is a protectorate of Germany. Women are sorted into castes, prescribing what jobs they can have, what clothes they can wear, how many calories they get each day, and who they can associate with. Most English men have been sent to the mainland to work (or have been killed for resisting), so young women often marry older men, and often German men (or become the mistresses of German men who are stationed in England). While Germans on the mainland live in luxury, the people of the protectorates live in deprivation for the most part. They still don’t have access to sugar, butter, and other cooking and baking needs, the only clothing and shoes they have access to are cheap, and there are no extras, unless you are the highest caste.

Rose works in the Chamber of Culture. Her main job is rewriting classics to fit the German standards – women shouldn’t think themselves above men, they shouldn’t celebrate their own intelligence, no characters should question the government – to be used in the school curriculum. She also is having an affair with Martin, who is the Assistant Culture Minister. She is a Geli, the highest caste, and while her life is better than other women’s lives, she is constantly on edge to make sure her behavior, clothing, and work measures up to the standards of the Germans. There are watchers everywhere, and you never know who will turn you in for a stray remark that could be deemed seditious.

The entire country is obsessed with the royal coronation that is coming up – Edward and Wallis will finally be crowned by the Leader. Rose is asked by the Culture Minister to investigate a spate of vandalism. Someone is painting quotes about feminism, education, and fighting tyranny on walls. First, they appeared near a library in Oxford, then in other cities, mostly ones where the Leader will be visiting when he comes for the coronation.

 Rose is sent to one of the Widowland complexes, where women who are past the age of reproduction and meaningful work are placed. They are in the lowest caste, the Friedas, and are all “known readers.” The law says people can’t discuss literature in groups larger than 3 persons, but the minister believes these women are flouting that rule, and trying to make the Protectorate look bad with this obscene graffiti. Her cover is that she is to interview the women about heritage and folk traditions for a book that Protector Rosenberg is writing about England. But really, she is to see if there is any evidence the women are behind the graffiti.

As Rose investigates, she notices her coworker Oliver always seems to be lurking around. Is he spying on her, or does he have his own agenda? Can she really live with herself if she reports on the Friedas she interviewed? Is this a world she wants her niece to grow up in? And is there anything she can do about it?

Like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Widowland shows us what the world could look like if we (as a society) take a step in a different direction. While Carey uses the names of a lot of Nazi leaders, the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” never appear in this book, and Carey says in an interview that she did that deliberately to “convey the generic nature of an oppressive regime.”

While this book is heavy and depressing in its subject matter, it also shows the strength of those who resist authoritarian governments and policies. The book includes the popular quotation: ​“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” by George Santayana, and to me, this is why this book is so important. When you look at history, you see how authoritarian governments take over when people feel disenfranchised and powerless, and how some people are always looking for the easy way out if it means they don’t lose their power (even if everyone else does). It is important to remember as we as a society debate the rights we afford our fellow man that when one of us loses a right, that is opening the door for someone to take a right that is important to us.

Mary Beth Adams is the Community Engagement Librarian for the Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at madams@alamancelibraries.org.