Literary Criticism and Significance
Published in 2007, The Zookeeper's Wife illustrates Diane Ackerman's naturalist style. As an author of many essays on nature, Ackerman uses that knowledge to intertwine descriptions of rare animals and animal behavior with that of humans enduring difficult circumstances. When the book won the 2008 Orion Book Award, selection committee member Mark Kurlansky wrote that "The Zookeeper's Wife is a groundbreaking work of nonfiction . . . in which the human relationship to nature is explored in an absolutely original way through looking at the Holocaust." It is that attribute of Ackerman's writing that distinguishes the memoir from other Holocaust works.
Some, such as Sue Arnold from The Guardian, have argued that Ackerman's Zookeeper's Wife demonstrates the author's preference for animal life over human life. However, Ackerman's focus is clearly on Antonina and her desire to shield as many human beings as possible from the Nazis' violent animistic behavior. D.T. Max from The New York Times illustrates the irony of the Nazis' success in dehumanizing the Jews and Poles even as the Żabińskis hid victims in animal cages to protect them from the Nazis' animistic actions. Max writes that, after all, the Żabińskis "were experienced with dangerous animals," so eluding the dangerous Germans did not pose an impossible challenge to them.
Overall, The Zookeeper's Wife illuminates a little-known portion of Holocaust history that needs to be told before more from the World War II era are no longer living to tell it. While Ackerman does have a tendency to ramble when describing breeding histories and the attributes of various animals, she manages to remain focused on Antonina's fascinating, heroic story.