Sunday, May 21, 2017


Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really excited to read The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. One because I nominated it as a book club selection (and it won! I rarely win things.) and two because I enjoy reading books set during the WWII/Holocaust time period.

This well-researched non-fiction book tells the story of a zookeeper, Jan Zabinski, and his wife, Antonina, who, together, saved more than 300 Jewish residents after Germany invades Poland. By hiding them in plain sight, the couple and their young son work together to smuggle Jews out of the Polish ghetto and hide them in the zoo before pushing them along the "Underground." Similar to the Underground Railroad in the United States during slavery, the Warsaw Zoo was a stop for many on the path to freedom and away from the horrific torture and terror of the Nazis. Much of the content is pulled from (and attributed to) Antonina's diary in which she documented the daily activities at the zoo.

At times the book was a bit difficult to read because of the enduring injustices and abuses to not only people but also animals that were recklessly used for sport and food. Knowing the history does not help numb the pain endured. The author paints a vivid picture of the time period by viewing it through a slightly different lens. However, the book is bearable, because in times of trouble, there are always helpers. This book, of course, focuses on Antonina and what she and her family did to help, but Ackerman also gives nods to other people who risked their lives to save Jews.

At the end, the author quotes Jan describing - in the most beautiful, relevant way, his wife's bravery during that tumultuous time:

"Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile. It wasn't just that she identified with them, but from time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind." 

Ackerman does get a little bogged down in documenting the details and proving the accuracy of her content by offering pervasive annotations and citations throughout. Because of this the book sometimes reads like a dissertation rather than a story, and I tend to appreciate non-fiction that reads a little more like fiction than this book did.

Recommendation: If you are a slow reader who gets easily distracted, you may find it difficult to make it through this book. However, this book does provide another perspective on this time period that is worthy of telling. A movie by the same name featuring Jessica Chastain was released in April of 2017. While I haven't seen it, my guess would be that the movie is a little easier to digest after Hollywood adds its drama and removes some of the mundane detail the slowed the pace of the book.

Until next time ... Read on!


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