A portrait of the small Polish town of Wlodawa during World War II, this collection of linked short stories is both moving and unsettling.
Shankman, the author of one previous novel (The Color of Light, 2013), brings Wlodawa to life through this set of stories told from different points of view. Like Joyce’s Dubliners, this book circles the same streets and encounters the same people as it depicts the horrors of Germany’s invasion of Poland through the microcosm of one village. The narration slips in and out of different characters’ minds, a reminder that there is no single story of the Holocaust—there are so many stories, so many points of view in just one little town. Shankman’s prose is inventive and taut; she writes of the “tea-with-milk color” of a boy’s skin and a young girl “watching the silvery bellies of enemy planes fly in tight formation overhead.” She also sneaks in a bit of magical realism in the forms of talking animals and mysterious, inexplicable natural disasters, suggesting the sheer kismet of surviving the war. Her writing is simple and matter-of-fact, never maudlin or sentimental. She describes the senseless humiliations and merciless killings of Wlodawa’s Jewish citizens bluntly, because that’s how they happened. Even so, the collection is bookended by stories told from the perspectives of Nazis; in both cases, the story’s protagonist is conflicted about his job. Shankman doesn’t let these figures off the hook for their deeds, however reluctantly performed, but her inclusion of these narrative voices alongside those of Jewish villagers displays both an aesthetic and a moral inquisitiveness. It also demonstrates how quickly and thoroughly war erases the will of the individual and how much easier it is to condemn a nation in abstract than any one person.
A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe.