In the Land of Armadillos

In the Land of Armadillos

by Helen Maryles Shankman


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501115196
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, Cream City Review, 2 Bridges Review, Grift,, and other publications. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Color of Light and the story collection They Were Like Family to Me. She lives in New Jersey, with her husband and four children.


Words like Brushstrokes

The booksellers who sit on our Discover Great New Writers selection committee can't stop talking about Helen Maryles Shankman's debut, In the Land of Armadillos. Set in Poland in 1942 at the height of the Nazis' power, this haunting collection of linked short stories that reads like a novel blends folklore and history into a single unforgettable voice. Delusions and denial, hope and atonement coexist in these finely wrought narratives full of clever reveals. Shankman has a fine arts background, and her paintings have been displayed in numerous exhibitions in and around New York City, and we asked her to tell us about how she employs such different media to tell stories. — Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers

There are times I want to tell a story with a brush and a tube of paint. There are times I want to paint a palace with my words.

Plain, unadorned sentences function like the background in a painting, moving the story forward, framing, but not detracting from, the main action. Or they provide contrast to long, compound sentences heavy with lazily unfurling syllables and clauses.

Used another way, the stripped down sentence becomes a splash of bright color, riveting the reader's attention with starkness and simplicity, like the yellow trousers on the doomed man in Goya's The Third of May, 1808.

I work as an artist. But when I write, I still depend on the building blocks of art: color, texture, and composition. Color is description, the way sights and sounds and smells breathe life into a list of words. Texture is the nature of the writing itself; should I use dialogue or narrative in this passage? Exposition or summary? I think about where the highlights will go, and what I can hide in the shadows. I compose the narrative arc of the plot, and the path my characters will travel.

When I paint, my gaze roves restlessly over the surface of the canvas, checking the work in progress against my original sketches, scanning my reference photos for accuracy and detail. When I paint, my eyes are wide open.

But to write, I must close my eyes. Back I travel, through the inky black waters of memory, dredging up places and events and passions, trying to recall the way the air smelled of rain and electricity that day, or cigarettes and orange peels. Behind my eyelids I flicker through a slide show of remembered settings, or rekindle the sensation of a particular moment. Only with my eyes shut can I shuffle through emotions like they're a pack of cards, deciding which one to play.

Painting is how I escape my demons. Writing means facing them down.

Originally, I planned to be an illustrator, to tell stories with the pictures I made. But eventually, I found that pictures weren't enough. I needed words. Big words, small words, fancy words, dirty words, lyrical words, foreign words, words I could taste and words I could see, words that syncopated with music and rhythm, words that twirled off my tongue and ran through my fingers and fastened themselves to the page. It seemed as though I'd been running along the ground for years, flapping my wings the whole time. The day I began to write was the day I learned to fly.

Helen Maryles Shankman

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In the Land of Armadillos: Stories 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This collection of interwoven tales by Helen Maryles Shankman demonstrates her mastery of the form of the short story. Based, in part, on her mother's family's experiences during the Nazi-occupied Poland of W.W. II, Shankman evokes this vanished world in a seemingly effortless manner. Her prose is both incandescent and unsparing, and the images she paints have stayed with me long after reading. [Note: I was an early reader for some of these stories.] While each story can stand on its own, I found myself going back and forth as the next story mentioned events or individuals from previous stories. Each piece also contains some fantastic elements, and I found the title story most evocative of the writer Bruno Schulz's work, particularly his phantasmagoric jungle wallpaper. I can't wait to read more. Brava!
Yonatan More than 1 year ago
An unbelievable read. Period. So much garbage passes for literary fiction these days, I cannot convey how refreshing it is to pick up a book like this and know that this will likely be read by generations to come. One story carries on to the next in the most subtle way to the point that you want to re-read every one to find the connections you missed. To get away with magical realism on a subject as weighty as the Holocaust is a tall order, but Shankman pulls it off brilliantly to such a degree that the true horrors are painted in a visceral way that no non-fiction can match. Just as it must have seemed to those who survived these atrocities at the time, survival often feels miraculous, and Shankman conveys this like no other. Moreover, like André Schwarz-Bart’s The Land of the Just and Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis, Shankman is able to convey not the cold facts of how many were killed, but what was LOST, and I’d argue that this book sits proudly next to these other works.
Meg-ABookishAffair More than 1 year ago
"In the Land of Armadillos" is a collection of stories all centered on one small town in Poland in the middle of World War II. Short story collections are not always my favorite but this one blew me away. Each story centers on a different few characters although other characters from other stories appear in other stories. Using great characters and good world building, Shankman immerses readers in a world where the stakes are always high and nothing is as it seems. There's also a good dose of magical realism in this book, which is almost always a win for me! So many of the characters in the stories are merely trying to survive. Survival is such a huge theme throughout the book. One reason that I love reading about World War II is how resilient and resourceful so many of the people had to be. So many of the stories in this book are filled with people like that. The author does a great job of letting the readers into exactly who the characters are and what makes them tick. The writing is really good! It was hard for me to pick my favorite story in the book but my favorite was called "The Jew Hater." It's about a man who has actually pointed the Nazis towards people who were helping the Jews. He hates them. Suddenly the tables turn and he's suddenly charged with taking care of a young Jewish girl. The character development was oh so good in that story. So many of the other stories really touched me! I know this book will stick with me for a really long time!
ErinOhio More than 1 year ago
Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi (Oh, for the Hook of a Book!) 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 muc
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading In The Land of Armadillos and i am totally blown away by this creative approach on a difficult subject. Helen Maryles Shankman confronts the complex nature of the human animal while taking her reader on an unpredictable and fantastic ride. I absolutely would recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Helen Shankman's "In the Land of Armadillos" is a collection of linked Holocaust stories that you haven't read before but will have wished you had. The dramas and tragedies of the Holocaust were not played out solely in the concentration camps as the bulk of Holocaust literature could lead one to believe. This superb collection though gives us a front row seat to the daily horrors and close calls in a small, remote town of Wlodawa, Poland. A town which could really represents unfortunately so many Jewish towns throughout Europe at the time. Simply stated, I didn't want the stories to end. I easily could have read hundreds of more pages about the times and lives of these people and mystical creatures. Creatively weaving fact and folklore,Helen Shankman made a magical place of horror and hope somewhere I wanted to linger. Even two weeks later, the stories still resonate with me and I would welcome a chance to revisit Wlodawa in future stories. Add this to your list not because you feel obligated to read anything and everything about the Holocaust but rather read it asap because you owe it to yourself to read something so good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is terribly written and riddled with preposterous conversations. As if a nazi general,in the midst of the holocaust and himself regularly killing Jews at a moment's notice, would ask his starving, wishing-for-death Jewish "slave" if he was still living in an ornate white townhouse. I cannot begin to imagine how this book made it into BN's Discover program.