Zookeeper's Wife Book Review

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Bridget Finnegan
Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007 368 pages

To consider a story about the Holocaust to be lovely appears grotesque and ironic. However, Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction work The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, begs to differ. Ackerman presents the true story of compassion and its polar opposite very wisely, and in an manner that manages to be both grim and exuberant. The tale to be told set Ackerman up for greatness, and she executes its telling impeccably. The story begins in the summer of 1935 in Warsaw, Poland, where we are introduced to a young couple, Antonina and Jan Zabinski. Antonina and Jan were the directors of Warsaw’s lush, fecund zoo in which the animals not only inhabited cages, but in habitats (engineered by the couple) to recreate the animals’ natural habitats. Both Antonina and Jan’s backgrounds were far from the norm; Antonina being a Russian-born Pole whose parents were murdered by the Bolsheviks during the early stages of the Russian Revolution and Jan, born a Polish Catholic, but raised atheistically by his father in a working-class Jewish neighborhood. It was these unique and differing foundations that made the Zabinski household almost a madcap bohemia, constantly hosting artists and intellectuals, and not to mention a seemingly never ending rotation of non-human companions, ranging anywhere from muskrats to lion cubs (all of whom had names). From this information, it is evident that Jan and Antonina Zabinski were far from interested in living their lives with customary boundaries. This proven as Ackerman states, "Antonina and Jan had learned to live on seasonal time, not mere chronicity. Their routine was never quite routine, made up as it was of compatible realities, one attuned to animals, the other to humans." And so their lives were imprinted "with small welcome moments of surprise." Consequently, their life together was ridden with “small, welcome moments...
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