The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

51qkbRJ3cdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Nonfiction — print. W. W. Norton, 2007. 368 pgs. Purchased.

When I purchased The Zookeeper’s Wife I thought the book would be historical fiction; I wasn’t expecting a biography and a peek into both the Warsaw Underground Resistance and the Nazis’ attempt to reintroduce extinct species into the animal kingdom. However, the wealth of information, while fascinating, makes the writing choppy and incoherent, at times.

“Our animal republic,” she finally admitted to herself, “exists in the busiest and most buzzing Polish city, as a small autonomous state defended by the capital. Living behind its gates, as if on an island cut off from the rest of the world, it seems impossible the waves of evil spilling across Europe could overwhelm our little island as well.” {pg. 42}

I finished the book quickly and enjoyed learning about all three aspects of this book, but I’m positive I would have enjoyed The Zookeeper’s Wife more if it had been written as a historical fiction novel. Too often, Ackerman will interrupt her narrative with “Antonina probably would have felt” and “he probably felt.” The Zookeeper’s Wife reads like Ackerman didn’t want to take ownership of the story and, instead, wanted to show you how much research she did and included in the story.

The information about Nazis theology on zoology and animals interested me immensely, but it’s one long tangent that sticks out like a sore thumb, despite the research being perfect, because this information deviates from the story of the Żabińskis and the Warsaw zoo. I wish Ackerman had added it in a more seamless manner or had included it in a different way.

“More broadly, the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists who promoted calisthenics and healthy living, regular trips into the countryside, and far-reaching animal rights policies as they rose to power…Under the Third Reich, animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic – including humans, of course, but not Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, or Jews. Although Mengele’s subjects could be operated on without painkillers at all, a remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia is that a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment.” (pg. 86)

I loved the imagery and description of Antonina’s relationship with the animals and general life at the zoo, but Ackerman overlooked important pieces of the story in favor of verbose descriptions of minor players and how the wind rustled the trees. She glossed over how the Germans never noticed that there were twenty or so extra people living in the house and on the grounds, despite the fact that soldiers would pop in all the time to stroll around the zoo’s grounds.

“Suddenly the ground trembled and walked under their feet, and they hurried indoors, only to find the roof beams, floors, and walls all shaking. The moaning of lions and yowling of tigers spiraled from the big cat house, where she knew cat others “crazy with fear, were grabbing their young by the scruff of the neck and pacing their cares, anxiously looking for a safe place to hide them.” The elephants trumpeted wildly, the hyenas sobbed in a frightened sort of giggle interrupted by hiccups, the African hunting dogs howled, and the rhesus monkeys, agitated beyond sanity, battled one another, their hysterical shrieks clawing the air.”(pg. 52)

Still, it’s such an interesting story. The Żabińskis deserve to have the story of their little island told; I just wish Ackerman hadn’t constantly shown the reader that she had done research for her novel and hadn’t gone off on so many tangents.

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. @ Anna: I was interesting, but there was just so much information that it was overwhelming. Thanks for putting it up on the challenge blog; I keep forgetting to email ya’ll my reviews.


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