Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

My mother was a great believer in counting one’s blessings. She had a wealth of tragic examples, both historic and contemporary, that she would cite whenever one of us started complaining. For example, if I expressed dissatisfaction about what she was serving for dinner I was told to “Count my blessings. During the siege of Leningrad people had to eat their family pets for dinner to avoid starvation.” Okay, okay, I’ll eat the stuffed peppers.

Keep this approach in mind. It’s a great way to shut down a chronic complainer. I once told a friend who was complaining that her husband never cleaned out the garage that at least the Serbs weren’t coming over the hill on an ethnic cleansing mission and she had to hide in said garage to avoid getting shot. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind, but she never complained about her husband again, at least not to me.

The Zookeeper’s Wife provides a wealth of further examples of ways in which to be grateful. Yesterday when I was starting to feel sorry for myself about all the laundry that I had to do, I remembered that Antonina had to flee Warsaw in a wagon with her elderly mother-in-law and an infant daughter. Just kind of puts things into perspective, no?

But seriously now, this is a great book. It’s a really interesting portrait of life in Warsaw before and during the war. Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan ran the Warsaw zoo; Jan was a prominent zoologist, known throughout Europe for his innovative approaches, and Antonina, though untrained in zoology, had a natural gift for working with animals. Their house on the zoo grounds was a menagerie where Antonina hand-raised a motherless lynx, and kept a badger as a pet.

Before the war, the Warsaw zoo was one of the leading zoos in the world. But when the Nazis invaded, they took the most prized animals and sent them to the Berlin zoo, and shot the rest. They turned the zoo into first a pig farm, then a fox fur farm. Jan and Antonina were allowed to continue living in the zookeeper’s house and assist with the care of the pigs and the foxes. The Nazis appointed Jan to a position with the Warsaw city parks department.

But Jan, who had a reckless streak a mile wide, used his position for his own purposes. He used his job with the Warsaw city bureaucracy to gain access to the Warsaw ghetto and was able to smuggle Jews out on numerous occasions. He hid ammunition and explosives in the zoo’s abandoned barns, and together he and Antonina moved hundreds of Jews and Polish partisans through the zoo on their way to freedom, hiding them in animal cages and barns, under haystacks, and in the tunnels that the zookeepers used to move between animal houses. They managed to do this for years, until the Warsaw uprising when the zoo was bombed into oblivion, Jan left to fight with the Polish resistance, and Antonina had to flee in the above-mentioned wagon. Yet both lived through the war, and Jan was later honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Ackerman based this book mostly on Antonina’s diaries. It’s a wonderful portrait of a courageous woman and her family. And it will certainly make you count your blessings.

(Book 44, 2008)


LINDA from Each Little World said...

I read about "The Zookeeper's Wife" in the Bas Bleu catalog (I'm assuming you know it) whose suggestions I usually trust. I got the book from the library and was enthralled by the introduction.

But then on page one, it was like a different writer took over. I could hardly get through the first couple of pages: there were more adjectives per sentence than I could cope with and (if I recall correctly) phrases that seemed awkward. I literally was editing as I was trying to read, desperate for a straight forward sentence and drowning in metaphors instead.

I tried to tell myself this was a story I wanted to read and to get over it, but I couldn't. I gave up after a dozen pages.

Becky Holmes said...

I share your dismay. There were times when I flinched at Ackerman's overly flowery descriptions, or skimmed sections that were overwrought. But I can get beyond this kind of thing if I am really interested in the story (though not always!). It's also true that I have abandoned many books that others loved because I couldn't stand the writing style. It's a very subjective thing.

Anonymous said...

I finished reading this book last week and I thought it was amazing. I liked Ackerman's writing style and didn't find it annoying one bit. I thought her descriptions were very vivid and I felt as if I was at the zoo's villa with all the guests--human and animals.

Anonymous said...

I like the sound of it. I think I'll order this one. There seems to be a trend for books with Wife in the title - The Time Traveller's Wife and another one I can't remember.

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