Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: "In the Land of the Armadillos" by Helen Maryles Shankman (HFVBT)

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.

1942. 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.

Wesley's review:

This was my kind of short story collection. When I finished it (a little bit past my bedtime *cough*) I just held it in my hands and savored the feeling of reading something that was just such a good read. It was like eating a Snickers bar on a day that if you DIDN'T GET SOME CHOCOLATE THERE WOULD BE HELL TO PAY.


This is my favorite kind of short story collection, when all of the  stories have a common theme or setting and has a thread of continuity through them all but it doesn't just tell the same story from a different angle over and over again.

I like the little dose of magical realism in a couple of the stories. For the people of Europe during WWII it must have really seemed like the end of the world was at hand; so who says talking animals would have been completely out of the question? (If you don't like magical realism, don't let this put you off. It doesn't show up a lot.) Even my magical creature, the golem, shows up in a story. I might have to update my guest post about golem that I just did for Book Bloggers International! 

I liked that there were some happy endings, but not so many to not be realistic. Because, not a whole lot of happy endings come out of WWII, but there were enough to keep me from despairing.

Each story I read I thought "this one will probably be my favorite". (With the exception of the Messiah one, that one I liked the least out of the whole bunch). But I think my two absolute favorites were "Super crotchety old man saves a little Jewish girl, also there's a talking dog" or "Legit ghost story I could tell around the campfire about mysterious animals in the woods" those aren't the actual titles obviously.

The more "humane" side of a couple of the German characters also made things complicated, in the best kind of way.

If you couldn't tell from the gushiness of this review, I very much liked this book. It gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars from me!

About the Author

Helen 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.


  1. Also, I love this. "It was like eating a Snickers bar on a day that if you DIDN'T GET SOME CHOCOLATE THERE WOULD BE HELL TO PAY."

  2. Wesley, thank you so much for posting this wonderful review. I'm glad you liked the book. I was so immersed in the stories as I was writing them that it was hard swimming back out of them at the end of each day. By the way, your title, "Super crotchety old man saves a little Jewish girl, also there's a talking dog" had me coughing coffee up through my nose.

    1. Well he was worse than just crotchety (giving up the partisans who were coming in looking for food, argh!) but I think he just needed a little love in his life to make him whole again :)


Thank you so much for your comment. I'd love to talk books with you!