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They were Like Family To me by Helen Maryles Shankman – Stories of War, Humans and Magic

13th April, 2017

They were like Family to me by Helen Maryles Shankman

Blending reality and folklore in the lives of the residents of Wlodawa, a Polish town, Shankman tells the truth in her surreal stories.


I am so pleased with both the books that I received from Scribner this year. I loved reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, which was a March release. Even though I was very enthusiastic about this book by Shankman at first, my interest was dampened after being underwhelmed by Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury, also set in a Polish town. I admit it was a foolish reason to get disheartened merely because both the books are set in the same place. Anyhow, I am very happy that I have found yet another favourite short story collection in They were like Family to Me.

This collection has interlinked stories and I would recommend reading them in the original order in which they are presented in the book. The stories are set the small Polish town of Wlodawa in 1942. Through the POVs of Germans, Poles and Jews, we see the Nazis busy in emptying  the town and nearby places of Jewish population. Two characters recur almost in every story: Willy Reinhart, Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, a skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart is a flawed soul, but he wants to protect as many Jews as possible. The author reveals a little more about the friendship between Soroka and Reinhart through these stories.

Each story is beautiful on its own. As I read the first story, I formed my first impressions and gave a star rating in my head. But as I turned pages, my fondness for the book went to an exponential high. It is when I read the last few stories that I realized how much I loved reading the book that I did not want it to end. Shankman  reveals a part of a painting in each story and then the whole painting in all its majesty towards the end; so you get to know all the portions where the narrator seemed elusive. I loved the ending notes where Shankman recalls her family’s personal experiences that inspired these stories. They made the stories seem so real, yet undeniably magical.

They were like Family to me by Helen Maryles Shankman

Some readers might argue that giving a magical realism effect to the stories would lessen the impact of the barbaric activities and atrocities committed. The lyrical prose in All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was criticized for being too ‘nice’ that it doesn’t give a clear picture of the horrors of the war. Personally I loved the Doerr book too. Shankman’s writing style isn’t as lyrical, but there is an enchanting veil of talking dogs, a Messiah who wants to give up his job, humans who transform into beasts, the land of Poland rising up to defend itself and a Golem with a mission. She makes the horrors of the hatred towards a community speak for itself in the classic ‘show-no-tell’ technique by her tender observations that often shock the reader. I love how she made her characters on either side of the war flawed, so you see them as raw humans.

Below is a brief summary of the stories I loved, which are six from the eight in the collection. I think that is impressive for a short story collection.

In the Land of Armadillos is the story of a German who wants to save the life of the Jewish artist who illustrated his son’s picture book while he doesn’t mind exterminating the artist’s friends and family. There is a symbolic reference to the political situation using a story of armadillos and cockatoos and how the some Jews are magically saved by the artist.

The Partizans talk of the power of the partizans to shapeshift into beasts.

In The Messiah, the messiah appears in a boy’s bedroom and says he wants to quit trying to save the world. It does not hurt Christian religious sentiments, but makes the reader wonder about the concept of a Messiah, whether he is just a lunatic or a real saviour. The magical climax of this story was wonderfully done.

The Jew Hater is about Pavel Walczak, an anti Semitic Pole, who has pointed out the Jews in his neighbourhood to the Nazi regime. He is threatened by the partizans to take care of a young Jewish girl. Reminiscent of Silas Marner by George Eliot, the young girl transforms him while a talking dog changes both their lives.

The Golem of Zukov  has a surreal, magical feel and is the story of loyalty, magic and a golem.

A Decent Man is what I call a ‘climax story’. It sheds light on Reinhart and connects all the stories by the truth of what happened. You know the kind that makes you say “Oh! Now I get it.”

They were like Family to me by Helen Maryles Shankman

Overall, I adored all the stories except for the title story, which makes it seven great stories out of the eight in this book). Shankman sometimes ends her stories with a link to a real incident and how she adapted the reality into a story. This was something I did not enjoy at first, but after a few stories I felt comfortable with this style of narration. Such endings gave insight into the situations Jews had to face. I have qualms about the  reference ‘wolf’ and ‘bear’ that appears in several stories. This was quite lost on me. I think the idea must be part of Polish folklores that I am not familiar with.

They were like Family to me by Helen Maryles Shankman

Final Verdict :

If you pick a copy I would highly recommend sticking with the whole collection because it gets better with each story. If you love magical realism, stories of war and stories of normal humans that lived in this world years ago, you will love the collection. I am sure these stories will linger in my mind for a very long time.

PS: This collection was originally published by the name In the Land of Armadillos.

Disclaimer : Much thanks to Scribner for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.

Title : They were Like Family to Me
Author : Helen Maryles Shankman
Publisher : Scribner
Published : 2016
Language : English
Pages : 304
Rating : 4.5/5

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They Were Like Family to Me: Stories
This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. I’m generally not a big fan of short stories, but I do love WWII book. Your review has left me wanting to try this collection. I’m adding They Were Like Family to Me to my TBR list. Thank you!

    1. This was a lovely collection. The brutality is not as gripping as a realistic novel because of the inclusion of magical elements. But I really enjoyed how Shankman mixed up both. I will keep an eye out for your review if you pick this up.

  2. Great review! I’m not a fan of magical realism so this probably isn’t for me, but I love when short story collections are linked in this way – somehow it makes them feel like a crossover between short stories and a novel. I like that the collection grew on you as you read through it – one reason I try not to abandon books too early. Sometimes I don’t really know how much I’ve enjoyed them till a few days after finishing…

    1. Isn’t that great? I think I started with ‘This will be a 3 star read’ and then changed it to ‘3.5 star’ and so on. Some things that seem vague in the earlier stories become clearer as we read the later stories. I am glad this book had that quality.

  3. I don’t mind magical realism included in literature, as long as it’s not used as a device to tie up loose ends within the storyline. These sound absolutely lovely. It sounded as though it started slow but gained momentum with each new story. Absolutely lovely review sweetheart, I love the books you’re reading lately and the strong focus on family <3 <3

    1. I agree. I was very surprised that I did not know of this book last year. The plight of the Jews, how some were saved, everything is magically interlinked. And it also talks about the narrow mindset of some.

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