Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Włodawa's Wars


In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman


If you think that yet another book about the Holocaust is just too much, when it comes to this collection of eight short stories, I'll have to disagree - both emphatically and respectfully. No, this book doesn't take place in any concentration camp or even in the depths of some resistance stronghold. Instead, Shankman tells us about the area of Włodawa, Poland - located on the Bug River, which is near today's Belarus and the Ukraine. While the Jews and those who helped them there didn't suffer any less because of their being in such a strategically located area, these stories of those allowed to stay there are no less poignant.

What distinguishes this from other Holocaust historical fiction books are the many intermingled characters that appear in almost every story here, many of whom are Germans or collaborators. Furthermore, although Shankman never denies or shies away from their despicable treatment of the Jews, most of these stories reveal surprisingly human aspects of some of these Germans and collaborators. While many might find showing the positive side of people we think of as monsters as hard to swallow, remember that Shankman based these tales in documented facts as well as the stories told to her by her own Holocaust survivor family members.

Take for example Reinhart, the protagonist in her story "A Decent Man." Reinhart really has no problem with Jews, and moves happily into his position in Włodawa since that's what they've given him. That he's given a palace in Adampol as his headquarters, with access to luxuries and expert workers, certainly doesn't hurt. His slow, but sure ingathering of as many Jews as he can possibly accommodate only goes to his credit. This story illustrates how self-preservation (and sometimes greed) can be far stronger than ideology or principles, even though sometimes, they're just under the surface, waiting to burst out and take over. Shankman's story "The Jew Hater" demonstrates the other side of this coin, with the man who personifies everything the Nazis stood for, until a young Jewish girl (forcibly) placed in his care brings out a compassionate side he never knew was there.

All together, these stories show a side of the Holocaust that isn't usually told, and Shankman's loving hand in telling them is ultimately evident at every turn. That said if I have any criticism of this book, it would be that some of the stories could have been shortened, and in several of these stories I found myself surprised that they continued after what I thought would have been an excellent conclusion. This is particularly true for the parts when Shankman referenced events that are more contemporary. That doesn't mean that the final story "New York City, 1989" was out of place. To the contrary, I think Shankman's inclusion of that tale was an excellent addition to the collection. I should also mention that I didn't even mind some of the magical realism that popped up in several of these tales. If you think about it, over the generations, most family stories take on fairytale-like qualities, with elements that defy logic and science, so why not allow them here. In short, I highly recommend this book and believe it deserves a very healthy four and a half stars out of five.



"In the Land of Armadillos" by Helen Maryles Shankman, published by Scribner, released February 2, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.