Plot: During World War II, the Germans attack a Romany camp and capture and kill all but three children: two young boys and their baby sister. Andrej and Tomas follow their mother’s last words and run, scrounging for what they need in the rumble left by the war. But one night they stumble unto an abandonned zoo. The animals tell them about their life before and after the war and the boys decide that they must free them.
This review is based on an Advanced Reader’s Copy received at Book Expo America.
The first thing I have to say is that the cover is eye catching. With all those animals staring at me, I’d feel like a monster for not picking up the book.
This novel reminded me of two other stories, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan, though it unfortunately falls somewhat short of both.
It is a World War II fable like Boyne’s novel; one that approaches the subject subtely and from the point of view of children who do not quite understand it. Both might be a good entry into the subject for children. But it is almost too subtle: unless you are told that this is Poland during Wolrd War II, you cannot guess it. If you do not know what a gadje is, you will be confused. It also lacks the heart stopping tragedy at the end. And like Pride of Baghdad (though the comic is clearly aimed at a much older audience), it is the story of zoo animals harmed by war and their vain struggle for freedom. But though Vaughan’s lions talk (to each other) they behave believably like animals. There is no logical reason for Hartnet’s animals to be able to talk to the kids. Their behaviour is often unnatural. At some point it becomes hard to be moved by their plight because they feel like a metaphor, a parallel to the boys’ life.
It was an easy read with lovely illustrations but once I finished I wasn’t sure what exactly Hartnet was trying to communicate. War is hard on the innocent, sure, but the ending was so vague and dreamy that I was left confused.