Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: Our Zoo

"Until I brought friends back from school I didn't realise that most people didn't have baby lions in their bedrooms when they were sick, or bring parrots into the house so they wouldn't catch cold."

Chester Zoo is counted among the top 10 zoos in the world and, with over 11,000 animals and 400 species, it is the most visited wildlife attraction in Britain. Unlike other zoos that owe their existence to philanthropists, explorers or big game hunters, Chester Zoo was the brainchild of one working-class man with a dream he had nurtured since he was a boy: to build a zoo without bars.

June Mottorshead was four years old when her father, George, moved his family to Upton, two miles out Chester, to begin the process of turning his dream into a reality. With no other children around to play with - her sister Muriel was 10 years older - June's friends became the animals. 

Our Zoo
Mottershead, June (2014). [Genre: Memoir]
Source: I recieved a copy of this book for review thanks to Headline. I recieved no other form of compensation and all opinions are, as always, my own.

Our Zoo is a complete charmer of a book. It's like sitting back and letting a grandmother tell you stories about her childhood, but instead of the run-of-the-mill she quite literally grew up in a zoo - Chester Zoo, which has gone to to become one of the biggest zoo's in the UK and is world renowned.

June Mottershead tells the story of her family, the animals and the struggles they faced with charisma, especially the WWII period, and doesn't shy away from showing the hardships that affected her personally, such as her pet dog being killed by a lion or the animals that died during the war because they simply couldn't feed them. The book is ghostwritten, but I appreciated that this was readily acknowledged from the title page. The end acknowledgements shed plenty of light on how the process worked for June (recounting memories to Penelope Denning, with prompting from a wealth of newsclippings etc that she had collated over the years). I find a mid-80s first time author happily acknowledging that her book is ghostwritten far easier to stomach than those that try to hide it.

Animal stories are hard to dislike and Our Zoo has them in abundance. Even though June  makes clear that her father (George, who founded the zoo and was one of the founding-fathers of the zoos-without-bars movement) treated wild animals as wild, the lines drawn in zoos were far less distinct than they are now. Which means there are adorable stories of hand-reared wild animals aplenty - you can't help but love the photographs of the chimps very happily helping to build their own enclosure. It's also, when it comes down to it, just an extremely interesting story. The Mottershead family faced a great deal of opposition and the zoo didn't become financially solvent until after WWII, more than 15 years after it opened. The everyday struggles they faced and the make-do attitude displayed by her whole family is fascinating to read about. From how animals were obtained, to what enclosures were built out of, it all sings of ingenuity and harks back to a time where such things could be done without the rules and regulations of today!

If I have any criticism, is that the story is almost to glossy. Although the bad times are acknowledged (particularly those that did affect the child June directly), they are not explored. Whether this is because June had a child's perspective on them at the time, so doesn't remember how the hardships affected her family fully, or has simply chosen to ignore them out of respect for her father's life work, is hard to tell. But it's easy to deduce that there are deeper threads to the story than those that come to the surface - such as her older sister Muriel emigrating and never returning to the zoo after the war, despite being a head keeper before it.

The book is also meant to be chronological, but some of the anecdotes escape out of the timeline and have to be reigned back in - a little confusing for the reader.

Overall though? If your idea of a lovely Sunday afternoon is having your grandmother tell you cute animal stories, Our Zoo will be the book for you! It is a companion to the recent BBC TV series, but as someone who never managed to catch the series when it was on, it can obviously be enjoyed without it.

3.5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment