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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