I requested access to In the Land of Armadillos on Netgalley for two reasons: One, I loved the cover. Two, I loved the title. That’s it. I’d never heard of the author; it seemed like the stories would all be sad. I figured I’d just read the first story and leave the rest behind.
But oh, my gosh. Remember a while back when Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See came out? I said then that typically there was one great WWII novel a year. It’s a subject that will continue to intrigue authors and readers alike, but some tales are better than others. In the Land of Armadillos is most likely the best WWII fiction that will come out this year–and it’s only February. And they’re short stories.
Even if it turns out not to be the best, it’s certainly pretty amazing. Helen Maryles Shankman has written a series of linked short stories about a Polish town devastated by WWII. We get to see the cold-blooded SS officer who finds himself trying to save the (Jewish) illustrator of his son’s favorite picture book (while simultaneously killing those the illustrator loves); the farmer who himself hates Jews and turns in many of his neighbors, only to find himself hiding a young Jewish girl; the town’s best saddle maker; the orphaned siblings who run the town’s largest mill.
Every story was so great – yes, they’re all sad because terrible things happened during the war. But what I loved about them was that the characters–no matter their nationality, political affiliation or religious belief–were so real, so three-dimensional. The story that had me crying was not because of something wretched–a death or betrayal–but instead it was about the revelations of a hard-hearted man.
Five stars, definitely.
In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner | 9781501115196 | February 2, 2016)