Maureen Milton's Reviews > The Midnight Zoo

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
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Feb 16, 2012

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bookshelves: arbor-intermediates, arbor-seniors, historical-fiction
Read from March 01 to 11, 2012

I just finished The Midnight Zoo and wondered why, after all of its fanfare, I didn't LOVE it. Vaguely set in WWII in eastern Europe, this fabulist account of two Romany boys who flee at their mother's behest when their camp is raided by German-speaking soldiers (whom they learn will readily kill them) opens beautifully. ("Taking his vast and circular lantern, the moon, Night brushed aside a constellation of stars and came closer....") In their travels, the children come upon an abandoned private zoo, with a handful of animals trapped facing each other in a circular prison. At night the animals are able to talk and they exchange their stories with the children (accompanied, we learn, by a remarkably subdued infant sister). In the end, after much contemplation of the nature of war, freedom and independence, we are left to ponder the uncertain fates of all of the characters.

Initially, I was impressed by the poetic language (characteristic of the writing throughout), which lends to the books fable-like story. This same quality, though, feels tiresome as we are admonished, "'Never mind that their kind have seized so much wolf territory, cut down our trees, set traps in our ground...'" by the wolf who disparages human greediness beyond the ravages of "'your war.'" Each of the creatures' stories, told alternately with the children's story articulates human cruelty toward the animals as objects of greed, entertainment, or neglect. Although this book is short and I agree with its sentiments and I appreciated the carefully crafted writing, it took some time to read, perhaps because the stories were interesting but not compelling. The penultimate chapter provides us a Marquez moment of magical relief and hope, and we are left at the end to wonder.

For this reader, the Everybear quality of the bear or the Everychamois quality of the chamois created emotional distance & the children were distinctive by description but not by development. We are told of Andrej, the older brother, "that underneath his grief and disenchantment, his belief in a good world was still there. And the more difficult it became to find the goodness, the more certain he was in his faith that it was there." Andrej later assures the animals, anxious at the prospect of freedom: "'Your supposed to fall down hills and get lonely, and find your own food and get wet when it rains. That's what happens when you're alive.'" None of this is bad; I just didn't love it, even though I wanted to. I plan to give it to a few of my 6th graders who love a good weeper and see how they respond. Maybe the text's blend fantasy and didacticism will translate well to a younger audience.
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