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Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Zookeeper's WifeThe Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

During World War II, few cities were as horrific to live in as Warsaw. Seized by the Nazis in 1939, abandoned by their allies, Poland saw its capital turn overnight from a vibrant, cultural city of mixed population—30 percent were of Jewish descent—into a nightmare of German occupation. Yes, Paris and Amsterdam were occupied; London was blitzed. But Warsaw bled like no other. Its very spirit was crushed, its Jewish population herded into the ghetto, packed seven to a room. Nazi soldiers massacred their children, humiliated their elders, and eventually shipped hundreds of thousands to labor and concentration camps. These days, according to a recent Wikipedia article, Jews number about 1,000 in all of Poland, having been nearly eradicated from that country.

But horror of this magnitude produces heroism of equal magnitude, and herein lies the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, zookeepers who used their gutted enclosures to hide more than 300 Jews and helped transport them to safe havens outside of Warsaw. An active member of the Underground, Jan helped arrange for false identification papers, smuggled people out of the ghetto, and performed various acts of sabotage against the German occupiers. Meanwhile, Antonina maintained her household of revolving “Guests” and worked to keep up the spirits of her young son, who saw friends both animal and human fall victim to Hitler’s siege.

Diane Ackerman has done a remarkable job of recreating Antonina’s world from her memoirs, interviews, and other research. Each chapter details a pocket of this strange life, from brave characters to unusual friendships. From the terrifying initial capture of Warsaw to the horrors of the ghetto and at last the retreat of the German army, this story follows lives so closely that the reader feels she is looking over Antonina’s shoulder as she anxiously awaits her husband’s return each day. With taut, suspenseful, yet lyrical prose, Ackerman brings their situation to life even more vividly than the eight pages of photographs included.

As in Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah's Key, readers of The Zookeeper’s Wife know how the story ends. In fact, the story is so familiar to some of us that we forget these were real people, leading real day to day lives without knowing when, or if, the end was coming. These were people who risked their lives—their son—every day because they couldn’t see living any other way. One method of coping was to carry cyanide capsules always in their pockets. Death was that close.

While this tale will be difficult for those of us who have grown complacent and comfortable, it is vital to remember that we always have alternatives to permitting the impermissible. These stories remind us that even when the worst of humanity triumphs, the best of humanity is always waiting underneath, quietly simmering, not to be denied. By one estimate, some 20,000 Jews hid outside the ghetto in the city of Warsaw. Without the network of grocers, forgers, saboteurs, housekeepers, teachers, beauty salon owners, and others, those 20,000 people would have joined the rest of Jewish Warsaw at Treblinka. These are stories meant to uplift, but more than that, they should shame us into action. None of us is too weak to stand up to tyranny.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS by Joanne Harris

It’s been awhile since I had as much delicious fun as I’ve had reading Gentlemen and Players the last few days. Always fascinating, never overwritten, Harris’s novel speeds along through a tale of deception, intrigue, and above all, preserving what’s proper and good, even if that means shoving an awful lot of dirt under an expensive Turkish rug.

The setting is St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys in northern England, a private school throwback to the days when manicured cricket pitches and carefully groomed, uniformed boys were the backbone of British education. Though no longer a boarding school, St. Oswald’s preserves every other vestige of its stuffy, exclusionary history. But one student seems determined to bring the place to its knees.

It takes a bit of attention to follow the different points of view in the book. One storyline takes place in the not-too-distant past: Our hero, Snyde, longs to attend St. Oswald’s but is instead relegated to a horrid public school attended mostly by bullies from the council estate. Snyde’s one hope is that now that dear old Dad has become the porter at St. Oswald’s, it will be easy to sneak inside the walls and pretend to be a student. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Well ... plenty. But fast-forward twenty years, and now here’s grown-up Snyde, a St. Oswald’s teacher. Through innuendo, machinations, evil plots, and violence, Snyde is determined to ruin the once-beloved school.

The third viewpoint is that of Roy Straitley, the Latin master who’s near retirement age and loves St. Oswald’s despite his sardonic observations and clear disrespect for its administration. Only Straitley is suspicious of the scandals that suddenly are unearthed; and only he sees the connection to the events of years past, that “bad business” he alludes to as St. Oswald’s last great scandal.

It’s up to the reader to connect these threads, or wait for Joanne Harris to bring them all together. She knows her territory as a former private school teacher herself. Poignantly she shows us the yearning of the underprivileged to enter the scholar’s world, the rigid class system that holds young Snyde at arm’s length, and yet we understand as well the realm of Roy Straitley, who truly loves his students even if the lower class is virtually invisible to him.

Along with some great writing and characterization, we’re treated to a suspenseful yarn that serves up more than one unexpected knot. The only downside is that now I’m stuck wishing it weren’t over.