The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett is a touching story about two Gypsy boys who escape with their baby sister when the Nazis round up their family and take them away. (Although the setting is World War II, the setting could also be anywhere in the world where there is war, today or fifty years ago.)
Andrej and his brother, Tomas, run across the country caring for Wilma, their infant sister. Andrej saw what the soldiers did to his uncle, shooting him without a second thought. He doesn’t understand such a cavalier attitude toward life.
The young family runs through burnt out towns and past a sad and broken populace. They are shaken by the cruelty of the Nazis and by the callousness of some of the people they encounter.
In one of the story’s ironies, Andrej’s father tells him, “This is the gadje’s war, Andrej,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with the Rom. Let the gadje fight each other if they want to; their quarrel won’t involve us.”
Like many during that time, those who thought that the war didn’t involve them soon found out differently.
There is a famous quote: First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
This quote is attributed to Pastor Martin Neimoller about the inactivity of Germany’s intellectuals to speak out against what was happening in Germany. Although those children who will read this book may not understand that quote, they will understand forfeiting responsibility for what is going on around you when evil is happening and you do nothing to stop it.
The children are innocent. They arrive at a zoo situated in the remains of a destroyed town. The animals in the zoo tell the children the story of what has happened to the town and to each of them. The animals are starving. There is no one to care for them.
Each of them, the animals and the children, relate their stories. One might think that Hartnett is asking the reader to ponder the question: Who are the real animals? Those who live in the cages? Those who are on the run from the soldiers? Or those who put the creatures in the cages and who orphaned the children?
The only humans in the book who have any humanity left are the children and the rebellious Alice, the daughter of the zookeeper who wanted to free the animals. She has disappeared to the mountains after trying to stop the invaders.
It’s a fable with a different kind of message. About mankind: “You persecute the creatures that you fear, yet the species you should fear most is your own.“
The ending is almost unbearably sad. The children (and the animals?) dream about finding the keys to their cages and traveling around the world to their homes, where they can live freely — where they belong. The ending is mystical and perhaps left to each reader to decide what exactly happens. Do the animals and the children die and imagine the woman coming to rescue them as their personal savior? Are they in heaven? An alternate reality?
Read The Midnight Zoo and decide for yourself.
This book was reviewed from an advance review copy provided by the publisher.