Published in hardback by Headline on 9th October 2014. My thanks to them and Bookbridgr, for sending my copy to review.
Chester is the largest Zoo in the UK with over 11,000 animals and 400 species. 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 Mottershead was four years old when her father, George, moved his family to Upton near Chester. He wanted to make his dream a reality. June had a sister Muriel who was 10 years older than her. There were no other children around and so at that age, June's closest friends became the animals. She befriended an orphaned chimpanzee and the pair soon became inseparable. June became the poster girl for the zoo and was on the front pages of Newspapers, had her picture taken with the animals. June took over as head keeper when war broke out in 1939, most of the staff had to head off to war. It was a difficult time, trying to keep the zoo running whilst the war went on. It was hard with things such as rationing to keep all of the animals fed. It was a constant battle having to move them inside when the air raid siren sounded.
I very rarely read non - fiction, but I couldn't resist this one. It contains many delights and Penelope Dening has captured the details superbly. This book portrays the harsh and sometimes brutal landscape of the time evocatively, respectfully and with the right amount of humour.
The true delight of the story was the many, wonderful animals. Some that I have to admit to never having heard of. A true tale of standing up in the face of adversity and challenges and making your vision a reality. The fact that the Zoo is there today is testament to that.
The book starts in 2012, the year that June's husband Fred passed away and ends in 1949 with their marriage, Fred also worked at the Zoo. Intentionally or unintentionally, I thought that was a fitting tribute to him.
Tiny criticisms and some to be expected given the breadth of time the book covers is that some of the memories seem a little sketchy and I got a bit confused as to who certain relatives were. I also thought that the book ended abruptly, or maybe that is the sign of a good story. I would have liked to have known what happened with the Zoo after June's marriage, for example did her father continue to run things?. This of course is minor in the scheme of things, this is after all June's story, her memories and I feel privileged for the few short hours I was reading, to be a part of them.
June Mottershead is now in her eighties, she is the guardian of her family's legacy. Her story and that of her legacy has been made into a recent dramatisation for the BBC.