This latest work by the prolific Diane Ackerman is, in a word, wonderful.

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“The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story”

by Diane Ackerman

W.W. Norton, 368 pp., $24.95

This latest work by the prolific Diane Ackerman is, in a word, wonderful.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a nonfiction account of an extraordinary couple that reads like the most transporting fiction. Ackerman, a poet and nature writer, found a subject that brings out all her strengths. No writer fascinated by human nature and heroism could ask for better material, as Ackerman reveals in her first two sentences:

“Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over 300 doomed people. Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do.”

At the story’s beginning in the 1930s, the Warsaw Zoo is a magical place, overseen by two remarkable people. Through Ackerman’s eyes, Antonina is the more fascinating of the duo, an intelligent, gracious woman with an unusual ability to understand and communicate with animals. She is respected by zoo workers (and her hardheaded scientist husband) for her ability to calm the most agitated and potentially dangerous animals.

“Antonina loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal’s eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook, in which she intuited their concerns and know-how, including what they might be seeing, feeling, fearing, sensing, remembering.”

Ackerman has a similar gift; she slips into Antonina’s skin through the latter’s journals, kept throughout her marriage, including the harrowing years during World War II. Many other sources — histories, records, interviews with survivors — are mined as well; Ackerman is as much a scholar as craftsperson.

The well-connected Zabinskis receive early hints of growing anti-Semitism and soon come to understand the potency of Hitler’s poison, which will eventually wipe out nearly all of their city’s Jewish population. Neither hesitates; Jan becomes a bold member of the Polish Underground who helps some 300 Jews escape to safety, and Antonina feeds, clothes, entertains and hides many of those fleeing “Guests,” as they are called, in her home’s closets, in zoo tunnels and cages, even out in plain sight, passing as relatives, friends and staff.

As she recounts the pulse-quickening adventures of the Zabinski mission, Ackerman also deftly highlights a bizarre trait of the principals of the Nazi machine: a deep reverence for animals, particularly those that could be bred for so-called purity through careful bloodline research and eugenic procedures not unlike those later used in human experiments.

The animal-rights militancy of the Nazis is especially chilling when juxtaposed with their gruesome cruelty, such as an event recounted in which a staged slaughtering of animals on the zoo grounds is hosted by a Nazi official (and zoologist himself) for a pack of drunken German “hunters.” The carnage rages as Antonina frantically tries to keep her young son from understanding what is happening.

For all her scholarship and protean knack for seeing through her subjects’ eyes, Ackerman is at her best when she writes about the many animals vital to the story. She relies neither on saccharine anthropomorphism or clinical zoology but manages instead to capture the nature and role of each animal — the badger, pig and hamster of the household emerge with particular clarity. In short, she devotes the same care she gives to the human characters. (The late E.B. White is the only other writer who comes to mind with a similar skill, although he is remembered for his more romantic children’s classics such as “Charlotte’s Web,” rather than his wonderful essays for adults.)

The Zabinskis were surely not perfect, nor their bravery seamless, and Ackerman never claims as much. Their imperfect natures are a given. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a tribute, yes, but more importantly it is history made vivid and thought provoking:

Would we see the signs of danger so clearly in our own time? Would we devote ourselves to a dangerous, humane cause so completely?

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.