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.
I must confess when I heard that the title of this book had 'Armadillos' in it, my mind went a whole different direction - to Texas, in fact. How wrong I was!
The the Land of Armadillos is set in Poland during WWII, and follows the actions and lives of various town residents (Nazis, Poles and Jews) during the war years.
First up is Max Haas, as cold-blooded a character as I have ever encountered. He is an SS officer, and IMO you could use the word assassin interchangeably. It seemed like he could write his wife a loving letter one minute and then add a journal entry about how many Jews he shot that day with no more emotion than it takes to flick dirt out from behind his fingernails. The evil described was palpable.
About the only chance a Jew ever had there was if they were skilled in their profession. That might grant an all-too-short reprieve from the gas chambers, or being stripped and shot - falling into the grave that you yourself dug. Officers who 'co-opted' living quarters from former residents got 'free' (slave) labor in the form of local craftspeople, but most often lawyers or doctors were sent to fill a 'need' for house painters or carpenters. And if people did not have the right skills for the job? Well, you know the history.
I had a spot of trouble at the beginning of the second section, where legend, fable and mysticism were introduced. It seemed a radical departure from the tone of the first section. But, as time went on, I realized that. Anyway, who am I to say that this or that seemingly supernatural solution is or is not real? And if not, I know that sometimes the evidence of our senses belies reality. Another way to say that is that we make our own realities sometimes to deal with the situations in which we find ourselves.
My, I'm getting quite philosophical, aren't I?
This story is one in which you can wrap yourself up, like an heirloom quilt. It can warm and comfort you ... and it can sometimes be too hot in that bundle. There are parts of our history that are not pretty to look at. If you have ever felt that there was an injustice happening, which needed to be corrected, In the Land of Armadillos is a book that should be on your bookshelf.
MEET 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 JewishFiction.net. 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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(Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my objective review. This post contains affiliate links.)