Sunday, June 22, 2008

33. The Zookeeper's Wife

by Diane Ackerman

I read this book for the local book club discussion this month. It's the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of Warsaw's zoo before and during World War II. Jan was active in the Polish Underground, and the two of them managed to save over 300 Jews (many from the Warsaw Ghetto) and Resistance activists by hiding them in the zoo and its villa. Ackerman's nonfiction narrative (with some "details" notes, bibliography and index) is based primarily on Antonina's memoirs, which Ackerman had translated.

I'm glad to have read this book. It had a little-known but important story to tell of the Polish fight against Nazism. But it could have been so much better. Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and it shows in her extensive descriptions of animals and nature. I would have liked to have seen more of Antonina's memoirs (which had their own evocative descriptions) and less of Ackerman's flowery prose and choppy construction. I felt I never got a good idea of what the zoo was like before the war, nor of what happened to it afterward, let alone to the Zabinskis. There's not a lot of information out there about the real people and history in this book, and it seems a missed opportunity to have Ackerman focus less on them and more on the natural world.

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