As I read The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett (an Australian author with an incredible resume who does not seem to have an author website, however, an extensive interview and reviews of her earlier works can be explored at the always amazing Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast site devoted to children's literature) my mind was racing. I was alternately holding my breath in anticipation, or forgetting to inhale and exhale as my eyes encountered gorgeous, poetic passages of writing and scrambling through the shards of history that I remembered trying to place the time and the setting for The Midnight Zoo. I began the book sure that this was a story set in Eastern Europe during WWII, but occasional items would reveal themselves making me think that perhaps this story was set during the first Chechen War, the Croatian or Yugoslav War, all of which occurred in the 1990s. By the last third of the book I had decided that, rather than a work of historical fiction with a layer of fantasy embedded in it, The Midnight Zoo was in fact a beautifully crafted fairy tale in the best tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen that is as frightening and revelatory of the hideousness of human nature as it is filled with examples of the magnificently determined, tender and generous aspects of humanity as well. As one Australian blogger elegantly wrote of The Midnight Zoo in her review at inkcrush, "I often find it hard to review books that startle me with their brilliance. It's as if my own use of the English language can not conjure up anything eloquent enough to match the beauty of the book." I definitely share this sentiment and wish I could just quote from the book verbatim to convince you of its power and value, but hopefully in my awestruck state I will be able to string together enough coherent thoughts to nudge you towards this book.
Hartnett's story begins at midnight with the character of Night. Observing a village below, Night "noticed the silence and reined in his steed, which is also black, as coal. Taking his vast and circular lantern, the moon, Night brushed aside a constellation of stars and came closer, curious to discover why no bell klonged, no creature paused, and no newborn baby, woken by midnight's arrival, opened its pink mouth and wailed." Amidst the rubble of this silent village, Night sees, to his surprise, two boys, "younger than Night had ever been, two scraps of life with scanty limbs clad in worn jackets and boots. Their eyes in their young faces were dark, like raven eyes, and their black hair was straggly, as unkempt as raven nests; they were clearly brothers." The brothers, Andrej and Tomas, run laughing through the dark, pretending they are airplanes, stopping when they see the words ZOOLOGICKÁ ZAHRADA fixed to the fence, the unmistakable growl of a wolf bringing them to a halt. Before they can decide if the wolf is caged or not, a "sudden and shattering screech which should have come from some frightful mythical creature but which actually burst forth from the depths of the sack Tomas carried on his back." Wilma, the boy's infant sister, has awakened.
Pretending to be airplanes is the first and last moment of playful childishness that the boys exhibit in The Midnight Zoo. As their story unfolds, the reasons for this become painfully clear. The boys carefully enter the zoo, believing it to be a safe shelter, and tend to Wilma, changing her diaper and preparing a bottle for her. Tomas shushes Wilma back to sleep and Andrej examines the animals in the cages, untouched by soldier, Andrej notices the animals attention has turned to the sky. Moments later airplanes scream overhead, dropping bombs on the village. The children are covered in a thick layer of ash but unharmed. That is when they hear the voices. While unconscious, Andrej hears his mother talking to him, telling him to run - her last words to him over two months ago when their odyssey began - and wakes to hear the lioness speaking to him, reprimanding him in a motherly tone, reminding him to tend to the baby. The animals can speak and spend the next several chapters telling their stories, how they came to be at the zoo, how they came to have the dispirited, sullen, bitter and cynical outlooks that they have while also telling the tale of the zookeeper and his daughter, Alice. The boys in turn share the story of their lives as well and how they came to be alone on the road with their infant sister, traveling only and night.
The intensity of the stories, both human and animal, are lightened by the slim but warmly descriptive illustrations by the superb Andrea Offerman, who also provided the illustrations for Kate Milford's middle grade novel, Boneshaker. With the sharing of stories, a wary trust evolves and the brothers begin to feel empathy animals. This empathy arises despite the fact that, in the two months since they fled they family, Andrej, the eldest brother, has come to understand that, as a Romani, or gypsy, he witnessed the execution of his family by German soldiers solely because they were dark skinned people with a different way of living and worshipping. The animals, however, are much less willing to trust the brothers. Through the filter of the animals and their tales of abuse and love at the hands of humans, Hartnett is able to draw parallels to the brutal war that the men are waging around them. The wolf insists that the law of human nature follows one simple directive, "I will have my way," and this is how he makes sense of his imprisonment and abandonment. Andrej, who has seen and understood things that no adult should have to, comes to his own understanding of the world. As he puts Tomas and Wilma behind him and goes into the darkness bravely and alone to feed biscuits to the caged wild boar who may not be caged at all and ready to quarter him with his tusks, he realizes that "the strong are duty-bound to protect the weak, it is a law of nature and thus of rightness: and in that instant Andrej understood that the soldiers and their leader were not obeying this law, and that any victory they achieved wouldn't last because nature's law would not be overthrown." He only had to wait for "nature to right itself, as it always must and will."
Like any compelling story that is also filled with painful, difficult and frightening moments, it is the characters who make it readable. Hartnett is a genius at creating absorbing characters, both human and animal, who carry the reader through the rocky parts of the story. Yes, there was a moment The Midnight Zoo when I allowed myself to skim a passage in which the soldiers march the group of Romani into the nearby woods, that young readers may not grasp the full enormity of. And, along with that passage there were also moments when, thinking I knew what was coming, I wished with all my heart that Hartnett wouldn't write it - in fact, there is more than one point in The Midnight Zoo when one animal begs another not to tell a story while others insist on it. But, I could not put this book down. Andrej, Tomas and Wilma, along with the zookeeper's daughter Alice, were far too compelling to leave behind. Perhaps the story was so heartbreaking that I wanted to see these good people and animals through to what I hoped would be a happy ending. As the dawn begins to break, a "floury gray that would become clean morning," The Midnight Zoo takes yet another turn. A détente is reached between the lioness and Andrej and a decision is made. Knowing that they must move on by sunrise or be singled out for being Romani, Andrej tells Tomas that they cannot stay at the zoo any longer. However, he also decides, after much thought to their well being inside and outside their cages, to free them. Disappointment after disappointment prevents this and, in a moment of magical realism or perhaps a waking dream of Andrej's, Hartnett writes an exquisite passage in which the brothers free the animals and travel the world with them, returning them to their original homes, using Uncle Marin's wisdom ("The truth of an animal is in its shape. Its body tells its truths.") to determine the home of the mysterious kangaroo. When they have finished their task they decide to take their handmade raft and become pirates, with Wilma growing up to be the meanest pirate of all.
At the end of this dream, the last two pages of the book reveal the true ending of the story, one proves Andrej's belief that nature will right itself to be true.
This is a huge generalization, I know, but Sonya Hartnett is now the third Australian writer for young adults and middle grade readers who packs an amazing emotional punch into an intense and intensely compelling story that is also beautifully written. Is there something in the water there? Something about living on an island? Melina Marchetta, a favorite of mine, and Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, which I read and loved, and The Book Thief, a widely read title which I am working up the courage to read. Here is the description of the book from the official publisher website:
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
I suspect Sonya Hartnett will quickly become a new favorite of mine and I plan to read as many of her books as I can get my hands on starting with The Silver Donkey, published by Candlewick in 2006. Set in France during WWI, it is the story of two sisters who find a temporarily blinded soldier who has wandered away from battle. They hide and nurse him and in return he tells them four stories inspired by the silver donkey charm he possesses. You can read a great review by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Wildly different books that come to mind after reading
The Midnight Zoo are:
A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu