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.
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.
Making Friends With the Monster
The elevator pitch for my story, “In the Land of Armadillos,” was this: a bad man who feels nothing meets a good man who feels everything. The plot follows a brutal SS killer who, to his own astonishment, finds himself protecting a Jewish artist. Sturmbannfuhrer Maximillian Haas, my Nazi, was inspired by Felix Landau, a vicious SS man who first worked in the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi Germany’s mobile murder squads, and was later the chief of labor in Drohobych, Poland. Max is a dangerous man, but he sees himself as reasonable, even sympathetic, in his own mind.
And that’s a difficult place to go. On the job, he’s an unfeeling executioner, but privately, he’s lonely, pining for his wife son back in Germany, who always seems to find a new reason why they can’t join him in his villa in Wlodawa, Poland. He hires Toby Rey, a reknowned Jewish author/illustrator, and the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, In the Land of Armadillos. Toby, who happens to live in Wlodawa, is painting murals from it’s pages onto the walls of Max’s villa.
Every day, I had to get into this man’s body and walk around in him. He writes gooey love letters to his wife. He mails home stamps for his son’s collection. He grumbles about his bosses’ demands, like any other mid-level manager. I introduced his brutality in small, matter-of-fact moments—he resolves a labor dispute by whipping and shooting the workers, or executes the town’s Jewish Council for not obeying a dreadful command quickly enough—in an attempt to show atrocities as part of his average working day. I gave him ordinary thoughts, an ordinary routine, ordinary emotions. The story is seen through his eyes, and he doesn’t see himself as a bad man. Since it’s me who’s telling the story, me who is creating his system of logic, it is also me making up excuses for him. I had to constantly remind myself that however he sees himself, he is still a killer with an untroubled conscience.
To some extent, you have to love every one of your characters to make them live. But it was hard to write Max. Doing the research was incredibly painful. Reading about men who worked in the mobile killing squads, their experiences, their twisted reasoning, was sickening.
But while living inside Max’s head, I kept slipping over to the forbidden zone, seeing events from his point of view, making his worst actions explicable, making him just another kind of victim of World War II. A weird place to go, when you’re the child of Holocaust survivors.
I felt queasy humanizing him. By the time the reader meets him, Max has participated in the worst crimes that World War II had to offer. In his diary, he describes watching a group of Jewish women digging their own graves, wondering why he doesn’t feel anything when he shoots them. He massacres the patients at a hospital and eliminates an orphanage, but simultaneously, worries that Toby isn’t eating enough. While he organizes the transport of thousands of Jews to a nearby concentration camp, he is also busy fixing up his Jewish artist with a girlfriend in an effort to cheer him up.
There were many Germans like Max, capable of dashing off letters to their mothers or girlfriends or children or wives a few minutes before marching off into the forest to execute civilians. What did they think about, as they stood in front of toddlers, with their fingers on the trigger? Did they know what they were doing was wrong? That they had left the boundaries of civilization far, far behind? Are they deserving of redemption? Of forgiveness? Of understanding? And why do I feel the need to humanize them?
I think I know why. It’s too easy to excuse those who commit atrocities by labeling them as “monsters.” Once we describe them as monsters, we let them off the hook for the evil they commit. Monsters have no control over themselves. We don’t expect them to act responsibly. But if we humanize them—if they have wives, children, jobs, hobbies, a sense of humor, a mean boss, ordinary workaday concerns–then they are just like us.
If they are just like us, it’s the scariest thing in the world. But if they are just like us, they are also accountable.
“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
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.
Blog Tour Schedule
Tuesday, February 2
Review at Worth Getting in Bed For
Thursday, February 4
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Friday, February 5
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Literary Vacation
Monday, February 8
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Tuesday, February 9
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Wednesday, February 10
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, February 11
Review at I’m Shelfish
Monday, February 15
Review at Back Porchervations
Tuesday, February 16
Guest Post at The Lit Bitch
Wednesday, February 17
Review at Cynthia Robertson’s Blog
Friday, February 19
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews