The Zookeeper's Wife
by Diane Ackerman

W.W. Norton, 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-06172-7.
Reviewed by Allison Stadd
Posted on 06/20/2008

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Any woman whose claims to fame include having a molecule named after her can certainly boast her affinity with the sciences. Indeed, Diane Ackerman, after whom "dianeackerone" takes its name, has published an enlightening body of prose about psychology, horticulture, neuroscience...and now the intimate relationship between humans and animals.

Ackerman's stunning narrative nonfiction work The Zookeeper's Wife explores the haunting paradox created by the juxtaposition of the Nazis' reverence of nature and their desire to shape the genetic destiny of the entire planet. Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, whose humanitarian efforts amidst the horrors of World War Two saved over 300 Jews. The couple sheltered escapees in the bombed-out cages and sheds of the zoo, as well as in their own villa. The book's rich and evocative language arises from Ackerman's thorough research. She discovered Antonina's untranslated memoir and supplemented this jewel of a find with other contemporary material and her own modern-day research in Poland.

This book struck me as a sparkling specimen of historical creative nonfiction. I normally prefer reading fiction; there is nothing more alluring than the prospect of getting lost in the pillowy comfort of an imagined world. But I found The Zookeeper's Wife to offer a similar escape. Her language is elegant, her imagery vivid. I found myself lost in the brutal brambles and thickets of Antonina's life, literally, behind bars in the Warsaw Zoo. I am Jewish; perhaps my personal connection to the tale enhanced my enjoyment of the work. Ackerman has found a tale that rings with hope and beauty in a context that history has taught us to perceive as as sinister and horrifying.

Animal lover or not, you will find a spot for this book in your heart, if only for the experience of Antonina's profound connection with the animals around her. Her nurturing relationship with the rabbit Wicek, and her anointing of each houseguest with an animal name, are simply charming. At times, Ackerman's impressive familiarity with her topic can become overwhelming: a great many facts and figures somewhat dilute the prose. But Antonina's story, and the graceful way Ackerman tells it, will captivate you—or, more appropriately, set you free.

Diane Ackerman, born in Waukegan, Illinois, received an M.A., M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her other works of nonfiction include bestsellers An Alchemy of Mind and A Natural History of the Senses. Ackerman has received many prizes and awards. Her essays about nature and human nature have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Parade, The New Yorker and National Geographic. Visit her website.

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