The Zookeeper’s Wife (Diane Ackerman)

The Zookeeper's Wife MIT.indd

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital.

Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is one of those books I’ve been hearing about for a few years, without knowing much about, other than it was set in World War II. It is actually a non-fiction book, that tells the story of a husband and wife in Nazi-occupied Poland and their efforts in the Polish underground. Together, they saved scores of Poles from Nazi SS squads, and participated in organized groups to undermine and sabotage Nazi operations in Poland.

I found the information in this book to flow well between factual and narrative, although at times the author did seem to briefly fall down a rabbit hole of information linked to – but not directly regarding – the Zabinski family or their efforts.

Growing up in Canada, I mostly learned about WWII in relation to the Western Front, the causes, the homefront, and conflicts between Japan and the USA. We spent very little time on lessons about the Eastern Front except as a lead-in to the Cold War and relations with Russia post WWII. So learning about the underground Polish Resistance was fascinating, particularly because one of my close friends is from Poland. There were multiple times throughout the books where I listened to Antonina Zabinski’s story and thought of my friend’s grandparents, who likely shared those experiences.

I listened to the audiobook version of this story. It took me longer to get into than most of my other recent books, but eventually I did fall into the rhythm of the story and listened with avid fascination, and at equal turns horror.

The narrator moves between the narrator’s normal European accent and heavy Polish, Russian, and German accents depending on who is speaking in the narrative. While this did help me to distinguish between individuals during conversations, it was at times jarring as well.

The Zookeeper’s Wife was turned into a blockbuster film in 2016. I’m not sure if it is one I will be able to watch. Although the focus of the story is not set on animals being hurt or killed during the war, it does happen, and that is something I usually cannot tolerate in media. For now, I will stick with what I have learned from the book.

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The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a 2014 blockbuster film telling the story of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking team, which was charged with cracking the “unbreakable” German code Enigma, during WWII. It follows the efforts of Alan Turing and co, as well as telling us of Alan’s heartbreaking personal story, from childhood to his death in 1951.

Alan Turing and his team solved the Enigma Code, and it is estimated that their doing so ended the war two years earlier and saved 14 million lives.  That fact that the Enigma Code was broken remained a state secret for 50 years.

If this had not been a historical film, I would have said that the writers needed to go back to the drawing board.  Despite not knowing much about this topic, I was able to foretell many aspects of the plot, including Christopher’s fate, the identity of the Soviet spy and “the sacrifice”.

Clearly, this film is based on historical fact though and somehow, that makes it all forgiven. At the base of it, this wasn’t a spy thriller; being able to see the outcome did not ruin the movie. It was a dramatic retelling of some of England’s best – and worst – moments in the 1940s and 50s.

One thing that struck me throughout the film, was how different things were then, from now. A 25 year old woman was almost barred from being a member of the team, based upon her gender, and then further prevented from joining because of her parents’ objections.  It was indecent for her to work on a project with five men, and to work for the war effort instead of hunting for a suitable husband. Likewise, I had no idea that in the 1950s, homosexuality in Great Britain was punishable by custodial sentence or chemical castration.

I had wanted to watch The Imitation Game when it was released last year but I never got around to it.  I have always been interested in history, and took multiple classes in secondary school and uni, but somehow missed ever learning about Turing or the Enigma Code.  The Eric Walters book, Enigma, which I just read about was also based on war efforts occurring a Bletchley Park, so it was an interesting parallel to finish both this weekend.  I definitely want to go and learn more.

The movie was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year, and ultimately won for Best Writing (adapted screenplay). Not surprising, considering it starred fantastic fan-favourite actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Charles Dance.

It was a remarkable film that I am so thankful I made the time to watch this weekend. I highly recommend it.

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Enigma by Eric Walters – A review

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If you have never heard of Canadian author Eric Walters, you must live in a cave and have never been a child.

He is a former teacher from Toronto who started writing to inspire his students and hasn’t stopped since. The guy churns out amazing novels for 8-14 year olds at an amazing rate. I first experienced his brilliance more than a decade ago in seventh grade, when we read several of his books. He promptly became my favourite author and even as an adult, I go back to re-read the occasional standalone or newest addition to a series.

Okay, okay, I should be writing a review for Enigma, not fawning all over the guy. But I love him so much, I’m going to leave a list of his best novels at the end of this post, in case you are that youth or parent looking for some good reads.

Enigma is the sixth, and presently the most recent, installment of the Camp X series.  It follows two teenage brothers, George and Jack, and their exploits helping Allied powers during the Second World War.  The first several books take place in Canada, the fifth in Bermuda, and Enigma, in the UK.

The style of the book changes slightly, in that George and Jack really don’t seek out trouble this time around. In fact, 70% of the way through the book, lots has happened but there are no suspicious characters to be found.  Hopefully there will be one more book to tie the series off, but I enjoyed Enigma, and it certainly redirected the series after the previous book flopped.  You can see the progression of time, the boys are older and becoming more independent. The elder brother Jack is barely in this book, spending most of it at work or with his girlfriend, instead of with George and the reader.

If you are a fan of Eric Walters or the series itself, definitely make some time to read this one.  I am always impressed with the level of research Walters does, and his attempts to write a fictional tale within a historical framework.  Not many authors take the time to do this when writing for youth and it matters.

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Books I highly recommend you start with (boys and girls): The Bully Boys; Camp X series; Northern Exposures; Safe as Houses; Sketches; Shattered; Trapped in Ice; The Hydrofoil Mystery; Stars; Diamond in the Rough; Stand your Ground; Visions

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