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 In the Land of Armadillos, by Helen Maryles Shankman, a New Jersey-based writer and painter. The eight stories in the collection are interwoven, and all but one take place in or around the remote Polish town of Wlodawa. 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.
Shankman also enlists Jewish mysticism and folklore to capture the world of her characters. There’s a golem, a reluctant messiah, and vivid accounts of the supernatural. Shankman joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss how her family history figured into this collection, her anxiety over introducing supernatural phenomena into stories about the Holocaust, and her greatest literary influences, from Philip K. Dick to Flannery O’Connor.