The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Review #32: Non-Fiction

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

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The Zookeeper’s Wife is as delicate, complex, and, at times, scary as an exotic zoo itself. Beautiful moments intertwined with fear that the wild animal may break through the barriers at any second and devour you — that the SS officers just outside the chicken coup you’re hiding in might find you. The parallels that Ackerman draws between living in (the Zabinskis living near) the Warsaw Ghetto and the animals in a zoo become more and more established the more I continue to think about the text.

This true story was pieced together from so many sources —  interviews, journals, memoirs — the scope of the research and effort that Ackerman put in to create this work is astounding. Bringing this amazing and inspiring story to light was no small feat. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story that needed to be told. The world needs to hear these heroic tales of everyday citizens working against the greatest evil the world had known (especially now), though when asked these people don’t agree that they were heroes. They say they were just doing what was right.

Though the story is one that is both necessary and interesting, the book itself isn’t always. The zoo is important to the story, and it makes sense to include details of the zoo before the war to get perspective, during to feel the immediate loss, and after to see the consequences of war, but there is far too much looking back to before once the meat of the story gets going. Jewish people were rounded up and enclosed in the ghetto, then all of a sudden there were animals running around freely again and cute anecdotes about the animals that once were, but were no more. Perhaps if these had been lumped together in the beginning of the book rather than the back and forth of before and after the war started and bombs had destroyed the zoo, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place. It was a bit frustrating because when I wanted to know more about how Jan Zabinski was helping people escape the ghetto, instead I was reading about their son, Rys, getting a new cat, or hamster, or rabbit.

Unfortunately, much of the book is like this — leaving you wanting more than it’s giving. There was a lot of detail of wartime, “guests” of the zoo, Jan’s work in the Underground resistance — it just never felt like there was enough. Jan spent a good amount of time in an internment camp at the end of the war and the reader is told nothing about it. The book is called The Zookeeper’s Wife so I can almost see why we aren’t told. But we should then be told more about Antonina’s experience without her husband. How she felt, how she dealt with two young children at the time, the stress of also continuing to help people escape when the price would likely be her, and her children’s, life. There needed to be more about the amazing efforts of the Zabinskis’ and other’s survival at this time, and less about the animals that were, unfortunately, a casualty of war.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is about to be a film, and I think the adaptation will focus on the things of this book that worked well, and will leave out those things that were distracting. I look forward to seeing it. This is a story that should be told and known, and the small shortcomings of the book should not deter you from experiencing it.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

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Dead Wake

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Review #23: Non-fiction

Blogging for Books #5

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake

It would honestly go against everything I know about good writing and storytelling, not to mention come as a complete and utter shock, if anything by Erik Larson wasn’t phenomenal. Not only is what he writes informative, but it’s entertaining; something that doesn’t happen all that often with non-fiction, unfortunately.

Firstly, Dead Wake is extremely well researched. Even without the dozens of pages of reference material and notes at the end of the book, you can tell just from the meat of the book that Larson labored over it extensively. There are more than a handful of characters in this book, but none of them is neglected. We are never introduced to someone who we don’t hear from again. Larson has created a well-balanced cast from several different sides of this story, with myriad viewpoints. We really get to know these characters, and though we know how many of their stories will end, we are still drawn into their journey every step of the way, waiting to see if we will find out their exact fate. Larson ties up as many loose ends as he can with his research. Each character has a story that is both heartbreaking and beautiful — stories that wouldn’t be known if it weren’t for Larson.

One of the hallmarks of a good historian and researcher is to find the information that hasn’t been discovered or distributed before. Many say that history is written by the victors, and in many cases, this is very true. History will always have bias. Here, Larson tells the story of the Lusitania from the views of Americans, the British, passengers on the ship, naval officers, German u-boat crew, and many others. He uses first and secondary accounts of what was going on with the Allies as well as the Germans through this wartime, and humanizes both sides. Though through the evidence he gathers, it is very obvious that there are heroes and villains in this story, he reminds us that both groups are people, something that oftentimes gets lost among the pages of our history books.

There is an element of mystery and adventure to Larson’s book. He is a master of writing a story that we know the ending to and still fostering thrills and suspense. Larson admits to having believed a different version of the story of Lusitania before beginning his research; a false story that I had also assumed, and suppose many others might as well. The sinking of the Lusitania, to my understanding before reading Dead Wake, directly and immediately lead to the United States’s involvement in World War I. However, Larson, in great detail, paints a very different picture. From the lead up to the Lusitania’s voyage; to its attack and eventual sinking; and the aftermath for friends, family, and country; Larson painstakingly presents the decisions that had to be made by everyone involved along the way. In fact, several years passed and other events lead to the US eventually entering the war efforts. And Larson presents all of these facts in a way that is both informative and interesting.

I was expecting nothing less than a good read out of Dead Wake, but what I got was much better than expected. Larson weaves exceptional details about a time in history that seems to be little-known with human interest stories and an action packed nautical thriller seamlessly. Dead Wake has it all, and does something that, in my mind is nearly impossible; readers will be thoroughly entertained, while simultaneously informed.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.