Interwoven Story Collection of WWII Poland: In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

02_In the Land of ArmadillosReview~

The stories Helen Shankman weaves, which are showcased in her In the Land of Armadillos collection, are magical, but not only that, important. As in the Jewish culture, like many other cultures, stories are spoken down through the decades, and it becomes more and more valuable to put the memories, even the bad ones, down on paper. Helen’s stories are linked, first of all, as they are from the same area of Wlodawa, Poland during WWII, a small village her mother was from, but told from various people’s perspectives. Even one story was from a SS officer’s home, so you truly see how everyone is impacted or confused in some way, and eventually, how they all are connected in a specific way to the first story too.

Helen’s stories beguiled me so that I kept turning the pages, even on the nights my eyes were heavy. In the morning, I woke up with the people in her stories on my mind. I felt horribly sad when reading them, but at the same time empowered by the Jewish people, who found so many ways to survive or be strong while atrocities were committed to them. In the case of some, as in the first story which was titled the same as her book, they might give up, but they leave their lasting impression in some way as a memorial to those that were lost. The emotional pull of the stories was beautiful and I was enlightened further with understanding about the depths of despair and fear that this time period ignited. I think it’s important that Helen surprises us at times, such as giving us relationships with a characters and then shocking us with reality. It’s through that unflinching poignancy that we can feel truly the horrors of the Holocaust and its victims.

I also really enjoyed the magical and supernatural elements that her stories carried, which swept me even more away. Many cultural stories are seeping in fantasy and folklore, but it seems that ominous circumstances, and trauma, also sometimes created a type of hallucination leading to people seeing beyond reality. I have heard many supernatural stories of the holocaust previously. I think it must be because they strive to make sense of such chaos, or to take a break from the stark reality. When you are dying, or those are dying around you, animals talk and become heroes. When you are feeling remorse and pain, paintings come to life. For some Messiahs and Golem’s appear.

Helen took real people from a German-occupied, small Polish village and showed how the occupation affected their every day lives, instead of telling us stories of people surviving a concentration camp or a story of someone who helped liberate them. Her stories were real grassroots…the kind of stories that remain with you after you’ve read them. For instance,  someone digging themselves out alive from a mass grave and walking to the local mill, then appearing like a Golem to those being harassed. How horrid would it be buried like that?! This is the gritty part of the lives they lived, those that hadn’t yet been taken to camps, or who lived in fear of being shot in the street or the forest.

When working on my history degree at university, we studied quite a bit of the Holocaust. This book, and books like this, would be a great tool in learning so students could be enlightened more on the struggle outside the big cities. I have continued to want to learn more of the people who lived through it myself. As many years as I’ve read about it, there is always so much more to learn and so many more stories. This war affected many, many types of people of all economic walks of life in so many locations.

As well, in regards to Helen’s stories, to write fiction that showcases much of how it must have been or could have been based on historical information leaves a legacy of remembrance. Many people that survived came to places such as the United States, integrated into society, and never spoke of the horror again. Now that it’s been over 50 years since the Holocaust, new generations are asking questions, hearing stories, or finding journals and researching. It’s a time to speak up now, so these atrocities don’t happen again.

I can’t choose a favorite story, as they all left a mark somehow, just as each moment for people affected by the Holocaust will never leave them or their families.  Every story is a drop of heritage and sorrow on the page, but yet also, some are stories of courage and survival. In reading the last story, there is also a ray of light, that nothing will be forgotten. Helen’s narrative style and voice, exquisite short story structure, and emotional depth all made this collection something to be prized.

Very highly recommend for readers of literary historical fiction. A wonderful mix of history and folklore that will keep you up late into the night reading. It will have a special place on my bookshelf.

02_In the Land of Armadillos

In the Land of Armadillos: Stories by Helen Maryles Shankman

Publication Date: February 2, 2016 Scribner/Simon & Schuster eBook & Hardcover; 304 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction/WWII/Short Stories/Literary

A Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers selection at Barnes & Noble.

A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.


With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.

Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town: we meet a cold-blooded SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, even as he helps exterminate the artist’s friends and family; a Messiah who appears in a little boy’s bedroom to announce that he is quitting; a young Jewish girl who is hidden by the town’s most outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are two unforgettable figures: the enigmatic and silver-tongued Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.

Channeling the mythic magic of classic storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and the psychological acuity of modern-day masters like Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, In the Land of Armadillos is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.

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“Moving and unsettling…Like Joyce’s Dubliners, this book circles the same streets and encounters the same people as it depicts the horrors of Germany’s invasion of Poland through the microcosm of one village…Shankman’s prose is inventive and taut…A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Every story in this remarkable collection reveals Helen Maryles Shankman’s talent for surprising, disturbing and enlightening her readers. Blending the horrors of war with the supernatural, she creates a literary landscape that is strangely mythical and distinctively her own. These stories haunted me for days after I finished reading them.” – Sarai Walker, author of Dietland

“With unflinching prose and flashes of poetry Helen Maryles Shankman spirits her readers back through history to the Polish hamlet of Wlodawa during the dark days of Nazi occupation. Horrific reality and soaring fantasy meld in serial stories that include an avenging golem, an anti-Semite who shelters a Jewish child, brutal SS officers who lay claim to ‘their own Jews’ and an unlikely messiah whose breath smelled of oranges and cinnamon. That scent will linger in the memory of readers as will the haunting stories in which barbaric hatred is mitigated by the reflection of a survivor who reflects that love is a kind of magic. There is, in fact, literary magic in these well told tales.” – Gloria Goldreich, author of The Bridal Chair

“Populated with monsters and heroes [human and perhaps not], but mostly with ordinary people caught up in horrific events they neither understood nor controlled – this series of intersecting stories drew me in completely, making me read them again to find all the connections I missed the first time. The writing is fantastic, and I marvel at Shankman’s literary skills.” – Maggie Anton, author of the bestselling Rashi’s Daughters trilogy

“In The Land of the Armadillos is a moving collection of beautifully written short stories that readers of Jewish fiction will celebrate. Not to be missed.” – Naomi Ragen, author of The Sisters Weiss

Author Helen Maryles Shankman, Biography

03_Helen Maryles ShankmanHelen Maryles Shankman lived in Chicago before moving to New York City to attend art school. Her stories have appeared in numerous fine publications, including The Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, Grift, 2 Bridges Review, Danse Macabre, and She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Winter Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her story, They Were Like Family to Me, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Shankman received an MFA in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, where she was awarded a prestigious Warhol Foundation Scholarship. She spent four years as as artist’s assistant and two years at Conde Nast working closely with the legendary Alexander Liberman. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, spending the better part of each day in an enormous barn filled with chickens, where she collected eggs and listened to the Beatles.

Shankman lives in New Jersey with her husband, four children, and an evolving roster of rabbits. When she is not neglecting the housework so that she can write stories, she teaches art and paints portraits on commission. In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of linked stories illuminated with magical realism, following the inhabitants of a small town in 1942 Poland and tracing the troubling complex choices they are compelled to make, will be published by Scribner in February 2016.

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2 responses to “Interwoven Story Collection of WWII Poland: In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

  1. HMShankman

    Thank you for your magnificent review, Erin!


  2. Pingback: In the Land of Armadillos | HELEN MARYLES SHANKMAN

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