Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE by Diane Ackerman

Amid all the horrors of WWII, heroes and heroines did rise to save as many Jews as they could.  In this case, the Zabinskis—Antonina and Jan—are Warsaw zookeepers who refuse to give up.  Serving as a waystation en route to more permanent refuges, they gladly provide temporary shelter to hundreds of Jews.  They manage to save not just people but also art, animals, and a massive, meticulously compiled insect collection.  The author culls Antonina’s diaries to deliver an in-depth history of the impact of the war on the residents and structures of Warsaw.  The residents include both the human and animal varieties, and both suffer upheaval and countless loss of life.  Almost everyone who lodges in the Zabinskis’ villa at one time or another survives the war, but the animals are not so fortunate.  Ackerman minces no words in her descriptions of the brutalities and senseless killings that Warsaw suffers at the hands of the Germans.  The animals steal the show in this novel, providing both occasional humor as well as heartbreaking poignancy, as the family chooses some unusual species as pets.  On the whole, the book is very readable and historically enlightening but a little distant as far as the humans are concerned.  Even the horrific scene where Antonina believes that her son has been shot is not as moving as I would expect it to be.  In other words, the author recounts events without speculating on the associated emotional responses.  I enjoy reading nonfiction books that read like novels, but this is not one of them.  It reads like history, and I am not a history buff.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a story that needs to be told.  It is, but the telling of it may be more vivid in the movie.

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