It what now seems like a million years ago, each winter when the rain and dark skies would come to my hometown of Portland, Oregon on most weekends I would find myself seeking refuge within the warm and inviting confines a movie theater. One afternoon while seated and waiting for the movie to begin (and in all likelihood bored out of my mind), I began reading a lobby flyer I’d picked up on my way in which happened to featuring a review of a coming attraction. As I read the review of the film (which happened be of a Canadian independent feature titled The Five Senses) I was intrigued to learn that according to the review’s author, the inspiration for the film came from Diane Ackerman’s 1990 best-seller A Natural History of the Senses. Thinking to myself any science book that could inspire a movie must be worth reading, I vowed to someday read A Natural History of the Senses should I ever be afforded the opportunity. As luck would have it, only a few years later I stumbled upon a copy of Ackerman’s book while browsing the shelves of my neighborhood independent bookstore. With a gift certificate burning a hole in my back pocket, I purchased A Natural History of the Senses and hurried home. Immediately upon my return home I began reading it. And I loved it. To this day, I don’t think I’ve encountered a science book written with such beauty and poetic flair.
One can imagine I how I felt when a former co-worker of mine told me her book club was reading Diane Ackerman’s newest book The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. Oddly enough, even though I wanted to read it, despite all the positive buzz and the glowing reviews, each time I spied it on the library shelf I passed over it. Recently, while strolling along the library shelves I once again spotted a copy of Ackerman’s 2007 book The Zookeeper’s Wife. Remembering that I needed books set in Europe for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I finally grabbed it.
Just as A Natural History of the Senses is like no other science book I’ve read, The Zookeeper’s Wife is like no other book about World War Two or the Holocaust I’ve encountered. It tells the story of how the head of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife were able to use the zoo’s resources to shelter close to 300 Jews and Underground fighters during the Nazi occupation of Poland. But what I think what makes Ackerman’s book unique is the attention she pays not just to the human dramas of war and inhumanity but to how the world of nature could be impacted by such a horrific and overwhelming event such as the Second World War.
As good as this book is, believe it or not when I started reading it I didn’t like it that much. However, the more I read it the more I enjoyed it. Before reading The Zookeeper’s Wife I had no idea the Polish Underground was so active and well-organized during the occupation. I also didn’t know that a surprising number of Warsaw’s Jews were able to live their lives undetected, some of them even hiding in plain sight thanks to counterfeit identity papers and resourceful individuals. And while I was aware of both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the later general Warsaw Uprising thanks to assorted books (as well as movies like the The Pianist) I had no concept of just how horrific they were and that they ended so tragically.
Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a huge fan of this book when I started reading it but by the time I finished The Zookeeper’s Wife it had completely won me over. I’d like to end on that note because trust me, this doesn’t happen often.