In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror,
and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson
Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler's Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler's ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain." (p xiii)
Almost since the day it was published I received recommendations from friends that I should read The Devil in the White City. After all, I live in Chicago and I am a reader. But perhaps it is because I am a serious reader that I did not rush to read that book, in fact I have yet to read it. I have seen the author speak on CSPAN's BookTV about his book on Marconi's creation of radio, Thunderstruck, and that book sounded interesting as well. But here I am, in 2012 and instead of those books I have just read his latest, In the Garden of Beasts, primarily because my book group is reading it.
I enjoyed it nonetheless, but not without some misgivings. It is a sort of personal historical narrative that is interesting in the same way as a journalist's report on a current affairs story might be. The exception in Larson's narrative (and it is one that gives an otherwise mundane story all of its narrative kick) is the background events. Indeed, some of his readers may have read other books about the events that form the background for his narrative.
I do have some criticisms of the book: first, Larson is a good writer, but not the master of narrative non-fiction some would claim him to be; second, this story is a straightforward narrative, and with all the background fireworks due to the ascension of Hitler to full-fledged dictator the book is not as exciting as I expected; and, the story is narrowly focused on William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Martha's view of the Nazi's whom she increasingly meets in social situations seems startlingly naive at first, but it evolves as successive realizations impinge upon her psyche:
“The smell of peace is abroad, the air is cold, the skies are brittle, and the leaves have finally fallen. I wear a pony coat with skin like watered silk and muff of lamb. My fingers lie in depths of warmth. I have a jacket of silver sequins and heavy bracelets of rich corals. I wear about my neck a triple thread-like chain of lapis lazulis and pearls. On my face is softness and content like a veil of golden moonlight. And I have never in all my lives been so lonely.”
While their story is interesting, one wonders why Dodd's wife and son were relegated to the background.
From the beginning, Dodd is out of his element as ambassador in spite of his intelligence and his quoted speeches seem stilted while his attitude toward the professional embassy employees appears provincial. From the opening chapters it is clear that he was not Roosevelt's first or second choice -- in fact it is mere chance that he was recommended to Roosevelt at all. It does not take Dodd long find this out for himself. It is to his credit that, even though he would rather be spending his days writing his history of the old South, he perseveres and works hard to do his best as representative of the United States.
I did enjoy the book as a whole, impressed by the connections Dodd made with other countries' ambassador's and how he kept a level head (his "cool" one might say today) while Berlin and much of Germany was in constantly increasing turmoil. The narrative holds the reader's attention and I experienced not a small bit of suspense. It might even serve as a catalyst to further, more detailed and serious, reading about the history of Hitler and The Third Reich. I know it did for me.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Crown Publishers, 2011