Book Tour Review: In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

Friday, February 19, 2016
Title: In the Land of Armadillos
Author: Helen Maryles Shankman
Genre: historical fiction, magical realism
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Published: February 2 2016
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

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.

 "Sometimes a monster looks just like another other man." - p.117

Set in the small town of Wlodawa, Poland in 1942 In the Land of Armadillos is a collection of themed stories that are both historical fiction and magical realism. Using tradition folklore and mysticism, Shankman weaves the story of Wlodawa's Jewish population and that of two Nazis into a poetic, harrowing, humbling story of survival amongst the endless death and destruction that was the Nazi war machine. The stories are connected by tragedy and by the characters that pop up in a few (Haas, Pavel), or in all of them (Soroka, Reinhardt) but each is starkly unique and developed.

Some of these stories top more than fifty pages (the eponymous first story, A Decent Man), some are less than twenty. But no matter the length, each packs an emotional punch that resonates.  No matter the viewpoint -- be it third person or first -- Shankman's prose reads easily and lyrically. It's a stark contrast between her writing and the content; a juxtaposition that is surely intended. Using the magical realism angle was unexpected but it well with the themes and stories that the author created. Golems, werewolves, Messiahs -- all come to brief life under the author's talented pen. Though the book is filled with sadness and the fact that the atrocities in Wlodawa are based in fact, the truly harrowing part of reading In the Land of the Armadillos are the ways it reflects modern life, 74 years after these horrific events occurred. 

This is a book that will stick with me and one I will continue to think about long after I have finished it and moved onto something different. It was a multi-faceted look at one of history's darkest times. Shankman didn't shy away from the atrocities committed but she didn't neglect the unexpected heroism, the small acts of revolts, the tiny attempts to slow the tide of blood. The spots of brightness in In the Land of Armadillos are hard-won and authentic. The modern epilogue is fitting and open-ended, leaving readers a chance to imagine how Lukas and Julia will take their histories into their futures. With this thoughtful, honest novel, Shankman again impresses.

Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, February 2
Review at Worth Getting in Bed For

Wednesday, February 3
Spotlight at Library Educated
Spotlight & Giveaway at It’s a Mad Mad World

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


  1. This is one that, at first glance, I would never pick up. However, I've been following the tour and it really does sound interesting. I put it on my list.

    1. I have a hard time with some magical realism but this author really impressed me a few years back. I am glad I took a risk with this because it does work really, really well here. I hope you give it a try!


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