Friday, February 5, 2016

In the Land of Armadillos

It seems so long ago, but it was only in 2013 where I read and reviewed Helen Maryles Shankman's debut novel The Color of Light, which is to this day, one of my favorite books of all time. Everything about that book was magic for me and I cannot tell you how many times I have re-read it because I just loved the characters and the story so much. I have been waiting for another book from Helen all of this time and finally, we have one. And it is just gold.

In the Land of Armadillos - Helen Maryles Shankman
***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.

Somehow in my excitement I missed that this was basically a book of short stories, which I'm not usually a fan of. Thankfully, while they are short stories, they are all related and they all are happening simultaneously so you feel like instead of short stories, they are just bouncing from different points of view of different characters. I want to apologize that I did not get this review out in time for the Holocaust Memorial Day, because this book is such a stunning portrayal of those dark days. No other event in history evokes the sadness and heartache like the Holocaust and it started when I was very young and read The Diary of Anne Frank, and it just terrified me that people would be killed for really no reason at all. Just the religion they believed in, basically. 

I knew that if anyone could tackle this topic with grace and emotion, it would be Helen. And she nailed it. The first story is of a Nazi officer who is easily a Jekyll and Hyde because he's writing to his wife as if his day job isn't horrific. Then he goes about his day and casually speaks of murdering countless people and just hopping over to the bar for drinks. To have something in that point of view is just... it hits you in the gut. 

I could summarize every single story but it would ruin the book for you but I tell you what- the stories are a combination of fiction and folklore and it makes it all seem real. I really felt like I was reading about actual events, with actual people, and I was struck by the beauty of it but also the horrific nature of the Holocaust. While reading this I found myself looking up information and images and I was struck by several stories which talked about people digging their own graves only to stand next to them and be shot. One image I saw was a row of shoes, people were asked to take off their shoes before they died and I just... I saw the different sizes and how worn they were and I wondered what were these people's last thoughts? What could that have possibly been like? Then other stories the Nazi officers really believe themselves to be good guys, or act indifferently to the atrocious acts of murder they are committing each day, and I just wonder- what the hell happened to these people where they just lose humanity? How do you lose your humanity? 

If you are at all interested in reading about the Holocaust, you absolutely need this book. It's one of the best books I have read in a long time that takes you through a full range of emotions and leaves you feeling grateful that you have never had to encounter anything like this in your life, and likely never will. You can find this on Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble. Just an absolutely stunning read. 

1 comment:

helen maryles shankman said...

Thank you so much for reviewing my book, Sara! Yeah, the research was really difficult. To write Max's character, I had to read the most god-awful things. I still can't comprehend that people did that to other people. Everyone knows what the Nazis did. The challenge was to write about ordinary people, to create ordinary workaday lives, and then drop in the horror. Stephen King was a big influence. He's great at that.