In the Land of Armadillos

Barnes & Noble selected IN THE LAND OF ARMADILLOS as a Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers pick!

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A radiant debut collection of linked stories 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 at a crossroads: 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. Wlodawa in 1942 is a town torn apart, but Shankman shows how even in midst of this unfathomable calamity, the people of Wlodawa—oppressors and oppressed alike—continue to grapple with the eternal human dilemmas of love and envy, freedom and responsibility, faith and doubt.

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.


  • “One of the most original and consistently captivating short story collections to have appeared in recent years…Experienced together, the collection reads as a sophisticated orchestration. So tightly interwoven are its themes, characters, and grim events that it is hard to imagine any one apart from the others…An absolutely dazzling triumph…Shankman’s skill for description paints the setting in brilliant detail…Many stories reward with ironic twists and indelible surprises…In the Land of Armadillos is a singularly inventive collection of chilling stark realism enhanced by the hallucinatory ingredient of top-drawer magical realism, interrogating the value of art, storytelling, and dreams in a time of peril and presenting hard truths with wisdom, magic, and grace.” – Jewish Book Council
  • “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…Her writing is simple and matter-of-fact, never maudlin or sentimental…A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe.” – Kirkus Reviews
  • “Following in the footsteps of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem, Helen Maryles Shankman is an exquisite storyteller of early 20th century Eastern European Jewish life…Readers of In the Land of Armadillos will encounter vibrant tales of extraordinary people, good and evil, in a twisted, macabre life. Here, the old rules are no longer valid. Subjected to inhumane conditions, with brutality and death around every turn, Shankman’s characters alternately perpetrate and combat hatred while sliding inexorably toward a dark and surreptitious future.”
    – The New York Journal of Books
  • “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
  • “Shankman presents a typical German-occupied Jewish town in an atypical way: through the lens of several non-Jews and their individual transformations, or lack thereof. We come away with something new in literature—a full portrait of a war-torn Jewish town, where a nimble application of the magical gently veils the harsh realities.” —The Rumpus
  • “Well-shaped and often word-perfect, boasting a clear narrative structure and a sure, signature voice . . . Richly rendered . . .As time advances, the tales grow more lovely and layered . . .Shankman’s talent comes fully into view.” —Chicago Tribune
  • “Many of the stories are almost childlike in the simple but elegant beauty of their language. Ms. Shankman turns tales of murder, whether methodical or casual, into fables that are rich in turquoise and tangerine sunsets, populated with mythical warrior bears who fight with the partisans and albino deer who summon nature’s wrath, releasing tidal river waves upon the demons who have conquered the land and its population . . .Each story leads inexorably back to Ms. Shankman’s fundamental questions regarding blame, courage, and responsibility. In a better world, no one would have to ponder these issues. Unfortunately, that world does not exist. One cannot read Ms. Shankman’s compelling, beautiful, gut-wrenching book and not think long and hard about what we are and what we are capable of becoming.”
    —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • “This is a book lover’s book, filled with beautiful language and textured scenes…There’s no forgiveness in these stories, but explorations of human nature. With bold originality, Shankman has created her own literary blend of history, folklore, fantasy, myth, spirituality and truth.” —The Jewish Week 
  • “A short-story collection that revolves around the Holocaust is a tough sell. Make it colorful, or optimistic, and it’s pure fairytale. Dwell on the ugliness, the death and depravity, and it becomes perverse-or simply unbearable. Besides, what is there left to say? Then along comes [They Were Like Family to Me] by Helen Maryles Shankman. Shankman shows us a world in which German officers, Poles, and Jews regularly cross paths. It’s a deadly coexistence, but relations are more complex than we’ve generally imagined. . . . A less able writer couldn’t pull this off, but fortunately for us, Shankman is skilled and she pulls this off beautifully.” —Tablet
  • “Helen Maryles Shankman’s story collection, [They Were Like Family to Me], blends mythology and history into a single, unforgettable voice.” —Barnes & Noble Review
  •  In the Land of Armadillos has the magical elements its  title suggests…The title story, with its sense of detached irony, mixed with tragedy and fantasy, simply takes your breath away…The  collection ends on a positive note that succeeds in being hopeful without sentimentality. These are beautifully crafted, moving stories, haunting in the dark complexities they portray.”The Chicago Jewish Star
  • “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
  • “Only rarely do books have the literary wallop to break through my protective psychic defenses. [They Were Like Family to Me] is one such work.”
    —Washington Jewish Week
  •  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



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