Here it is time for another Literary Wives club meeting. Please also see the reviews of my fellow “wives!”
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Let’s get right to the book!
The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabiński, the keeper of the Warsaw zoo and his wife during World War II. After the bombardment by the Germans and their invasion, the Zabińskis struggled to keep the zoo animals alive, but they were also responsible for providing temporary shelter in the zoo grounds and in their house to hundreds of Jews. Jan, who was a member of the Polish Underground, found ways of smuggling people out of the ghetto, and he and Antonina kept them at the zoo until they could be placed elsewhere, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for longer periods.
The book is rich with details about life in their unusual household, full of animals and of hidden people who came out cautiously at night. It tells stories of lucky escapes and frightening encounters with the Nazis. It also provides information about life in the ghetto and some of its heroic leaders. I found some of these stories extremely touching, such as that of Henryk Goldzmit, a children’s author who went by Janusz Korczak. He abandoned his literary career to found an orphanage for Jewish children, and when the Nazis decided to ship all the children to Treblinka and almost certain death, went with them so they would not be frightened.
Although some of Ackerman’s many digressions from the main story add interest and color to the book, I unfortunately found others disruptive to the flow. For example, she spends more than a page on Jacques Offenbach simply because Antonina played one of his pieces on the piano to warn the hidden residents when strangers approached. Ackerman, a nature writer, spends another very long paragraph just listing the types of bugs in an insect collection entrusted to the Zabińskis. After awhile, these digressions began to feel like padding.
I also felt that Ackerman’s writing sometimes verges a little too closely on fiction. She is prone to rather florid descriptions of things she can only be imagining, often including inapt or odd metaphorical language. Although she introduces the book by saying she got the dialogue directly from Antonina’s diaries, she fictionalizes other things, such as the thoughts of sculptor Magdalena Gross, that could not have come from her sources. This style of writing for a nonfiction subject makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I read this book when it first came out and remembered it as a work of fiction.
What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?
In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife?”
It is interesting to me that Jan Zabiński describes Antonina at one time as “just a housewife,” because she is clearly so much more than that. She helps him administer the zoo and take care of the animals even before the war. During the war, she takes care of a household of refugees while Jan is out until late most nights and is gone for some extended periods of time. Although he is described as authoritarian and occasionally harsh, he trusts her implicitly to run things and keep everyone safe, even through scary encounters with Nazi officials and drunk soldiers. Although she would define herself as a wife and her husband as the master of the house, it is clear that the two respect each other and trust each other to handle difficult and dangerous situations. Antonina also defines herself as a mother, with the fierce determination to protect her children and her other charges.