The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

After having seen the book-to-movie film preview for this novel, I purchased a copy, thinking it would be like so many of the historical fiction novels of WWII that I’ve read and enjoyed. Though it was very different, I still enjoyed it very much. It took me quite a bit longer to read it than others, but I believe that is because of the large amount of quotations and well-researched background information. This is a nonfiction narrative based upon the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski during WWII in war-ravaged Warsaw, Poland. Jan was the zookeeper for the well-known and successful Warsaw Zoo. His wife, Antonina, shared a special bond with the animals at the zoo, and her courageous and compassionate personality allowed her to save over 300 people, mostly Jewish, who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during WWII. The reason the Zabinskis were able to hide so many Jewish people on the zoo property and in the villa is because of the Nazis obsession with preserving certain animals in their purification scheme. Were the Nazis not concerned with animals and zoology, Jan and Antonina would likely not have been able to save lives like they did.

The descriptions of exotic zoo animals and even common animals in the story are detailed and realistic. The author clearly completed many hours of extensive research in order to tell the Zabinski’s story, as evidenced by the lengthy chapter-by-chapter details section and the bibliography at the end of the book. This story was different from most of the WWII novels that I normally read because rather than focusing on life in a concentration camp, it detailed the daily life of those living in Poland during the war, which for some was living in constant terror and fear. Because of the wealth of detail and personal stories weaved into the story, this was not a quick read. It took me a while to get through the book, but it was worth the read and I did enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing the movie, because I believe it will be a nice complement to the book.

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Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

9781501112171_6e1b5.jpgI’m back again with another WWII historical fiction novel, which seems to be one of my favorite genres of late. This is written for a YA audience, but like Salt to the Sea, adults will also enjoy reading it. Girl in the Blue Coat will be published April 5, 2016.

The story takes place in Amsterdam in 1943. Hanneke is a brave, young Dutch girl with nothing much else to lose, having recently lost her true love, Bas, to the war, as well as her best friend Elspeth. She supports her mother and crippled father working for a funeral director. What she actually does for Mr. Kreuk, however, is locate and deliver items found on the black market, items such as chocolate, cigarettes, and extra meat which have become scarce during the war efforts. As German soldiers roam the streets in her village and Jewish families are rounded up all around her, Hanneke’s courage shines. She becomes skilled at tricking the soldiers so they let her pass without any trouble. Her small acts of rebellion against Nazis and Hitler, though done mostly in secret, provide a small measure of satisfaction to combat the immense grief she struggles with daily.

One day, during a routine delivery to an older woman names Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke’s is asked to help locate a missing girl in a blue coat, named Mirjam. She was hiding in Mrs. Janssen’s cellar since her family was transported and killed by German soldiers, but has recently turned up missing. The problem is that the girl is Jewish, and if Hanneke is caught helping a Jewish girl, she will also be sent away or worse.  As Hanneke searches in secret, with the help of some members of an underground resistance group including Bas’s brother Ollie, she finds out that the girl in the blue coat either doesn’t want to be found, or that she may not be the girl Hanneke is searching for after all. Is it worth risking lives to locate one missing Jewish girl, when so many Jewish people are being rounded up like livestock and sent to uncertain death? Hanneke gave Mrs. Janssen her word, and she will not stop until she finds Mirjam, the girl in the blue coat.

This is a coming-of-age novel with so much going on. There are stories of Jewish babies and young children who are rescued by brave resistance workers, much like Hanneke’s friend, Mina, as their families are taken to concentration camps. There is hope, even in the most dire circumstances, and there is love between family, and between best friends. The author has done a beautiful job bringing light to a portion of history which should always be remembered. Overall, Girl in the Blue Coat is a wonderful story, for which you won’t be disappointed. My only disappointment is that it had to end.

Thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for the early review copy.