Thursday, December 29, 2011

11. The Midnight Zoo

By Sonya Hartnett
Illustrated by Andrea Offermann
Candlewick, 2011
$16.99, ages 10 and up, 208 pages

Two brothers on the run from Nazi Germans stumble upon an abandoned zoo where they struggle to make sense of a terrifying world, in this deeply moving novel by the author of Thursday's Child.

When Germans invade their clan's camp, killing their uncle and taking their gypsy parents captive, 12-year-old Andrej and 9-year-old Tomas flee for their lives to an empty village crushed by Nazi bombs.

The village is like a ghost town, eerie and dangerous. They forage in the rubble for scraps of food, guarding a secret bundle in their knapsack. Then one night, they let loose and run through the streets.

Their arms stretch out like wings of airplanes and their hands jounce along the iron bars of a fence. They're imagining, if only for a few moment, that they don't know the horrors of war.

Then all of a sudden a low, gravely noise stirs them from their play, the growl of a rangy wolf. Its footfalls threaten from behind and they flee for shelter. Then just as quickly the wolf stops in its tracks, and they realize it cannot get to them.

The wolf is behind the fence that they ran their fingers over, in a small zoo, a circuit of cages laid out like a garden.

As the brothers explore the abandoned zoo under the safety of darkness, they discover the animals are very weak. But their cages, incredibly, have not been damaged by the aerial raids that have devastated the rest of the city.

They find a monkey chittering tensely, a bear "with ears like toppled teacups" laying sadly in the rear of a cage, a lioness without her cubs laying almost motionless in a filthy pen, a seal swimming in moldering water, a cage where a boar should be, and lama with "heart-meltingly" lashy eyes.

The animals, like the boys, have watched their world stolen away, upended and stripped of compassion. None of them are free, not the animals behind bars, not the boys "dodging and hiding" and "being blown about by chance."

They each hunger for things they've lost or never had, and together in the midnight zoo, they find a way to trust each other and to imagine their way to freedom.

Hartnett's words are poetic and powerful, so much so that I'd stop to reread passages, awed by the clarity of her expression:

"Tomas's life," she describes in the first few pages, "had become a challenge of endurance … It was life gnawed at every edge by worry."

And later when planes bomb over the zoo:

"The airplanes came from nowhere -- perhaps from behind the broad platter of the moon, perhaps from inside a star. Against the soft gray sky they were as black and stiff as a trio of undertakers."

Sad, yes, but also very magical, this is an exquisite story about the power of the spirit, and the will to endure, no matter how uncertain things become.

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