Saturday, March 11, 2017

What the Judges Had to Say About Helen Maryles Shankman's They Were Like Family to Me

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

“The stories in They Were Like Family to Me are connected around the Polish town of Włodawa, which the Nazis occupied during World War II. The stories dance around Reich Regional Commissioner Reinhart, the bureaucrat who has a taste for the finer things and is willing to protect his most talented Jews. The author weaves in Jewish folktales, making them seem like family legends. Several of the incidents, like the merchants forced to do jumping jacks for the amusement of Nazi guards, appear in several of the stories. And minor characters in one story take center stage in the other. There’s no question that Helen Maryles Shankman had my attention in the first story, when the brutal Nazi officer Max Haas hires a Jewish man to paint his apartment, only to realize the man is the illustrator of his child’s favorite children’s book. At one point, I gasped and had to talk about the story to just about anyone I came in contact with for the rest of the day. I couldn’t help it. And I loved the classic way that the Reinhart character plays at the periphery of so many stories before we finally get his perspective.”