The Midnight Zoo

A strange and heartbreaking tale, The Midnight Zoo is the latest literary gem from author Sonya Hartnett and features lovely illustrations by Andrea Offermann. Two young boys, Andrej and his younger brother Tomas, are walking through a war-ravaged countryside, scrounging up whatever they can to survive while they protect the precious bundle they carry -- their baby sister Wilma. As gypsies (known as Rom), the boys are used to the life of wandering, where every day brings them to a new place, but taking care of themselves is a very new responsibility and obviously has its roots in tragedy. While wandering through a destroyed and empty town, the boys stumble upon a very small zoo, whose animals are still captive in their cages despite the near-total annihilation of the human dwellings. The zoo contains a wolf, an eagle, a monkey, a bear, a lioness, a seal, a chamois, and a llama. Shortly after identifying the animals that surround them, airplanes appear and a sudden air raid threatens all their lives. When Andrej and Tomas wake up, the animals are speaking to them. Nearly everyone has a turn at telling his or her own stories of captivity, including the boys, but when everyone has been displaced and there's no way to return them to the lives they should have been living, what can possibly be done to go on?
Yes, the main human characters are children; yes, it's relatively short; yes, there's a fable-like quality to the story; but does this mean this book could only be classified as exclusively (or even primarily) a book for children? Most certainly not! As I read, I found myself thinking of this as an introduction to magical realism more than a story which depicted the magic of a children's book. Of course, magical realism is certainly not a concept that can exclusively be applied to books for adults, but somehow I feel like this novel merits the acknowledgement of providing a beautiful and quiet illustration of the concept for those (children or otherwise) who might otherwise only have encountered fantasy depictions of magic. It subtly creeps in, begging the question of what is real and asking the reader to suspend his or her disbelief for the sake of coming to a deeper understanding of what it means for any creature to be safe and free. Children and adults would have similar reactions to the emotions brought forth in this novel of war, tragedy, and flickering hope. Technically, the setting for this tale is obviously World War II, but after reading it, one feels as though this could be a theme that applies to any war which ravages countries and lives, putting innocents in danger. It is a novel to be read with a heart that aches for the world and its inhabitants... and at the core of all that is the desire to shape one's own destiny and the longing for freedom from many different kinds of cages.
I imagine that The Midnight Zoo is destined to be taught in classrooms or suggested for book reports. I can even see the prompted questions now, revolving around the meaning of freedom, the logic behind a story told largely by talking animals, the lack of explicit closure and open-endedness of the final chapter, and the possibility that the children and animals actually died in the air raid. It is a novel that easily yields itself up to questions because that is its goal -- to provoke the reader in to asking questions. I would urge adults to treat this as a novella and enjoy the multitude of topics which will undoubtedly now stir in their minds... topics which might not otherwise have large purchase, even for sensitive souls: the animal nature of human beings; the questionable justification for wild animals being tamed; the definition of a cage; the repercussions of even our well-intentioned actions on the lives of those around us, human or otherwise. The Midnight Zoo will stay with you long after you finish reading and reflection upon the story and its themes only makes it feel richer. I'm delighted to have been exposed to this beautiful novel and I look forward to discovering Sonya Hartnett's other work.

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