Erik Larson’s newest historical saga transports readers to 1933 Berlin, an almost too-familiar time and place that Larson makes compelling by introducing an American family’s view of Hitler’s rise to power. Just as Larson’s Devil in the White City evoked the unreported evil surrounding 1890s Chicago, this account delves into a little known historical figure and his role in the unfolding drama leading to World War II. William Dodd was a quiet University of Chicago professor when Roosevelt appointed him ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, a position none of the usual ambassadorial suspects desired.
The unassuming Dodd took his wife, son and reckless daughter, Martha, with him to Berlin and Martha, an assistant literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, immediately ingratiated herself within Berlin society and with the burgeoning Nazi leadership. Her sexual liaisons and friendships offer a rare view of the increasing tensions as Americans and German Jews suffer brutal attacks without consequence. Martha’s naiveté and her father’s essential fair-minded approach afford readers a clear view of America’s isolationism and of the dilettante foreign service of the time. Larson also offers a clear, unvarnished portrait of American anti-Semitism and its ultimate cost.
The Dodds’ chatty correspondence with Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder and other historical figures was my favorite aspect of the book. Larson also captured my interest with his discerning depiction of the cut-throat tactics some American diplomats used including compromising diplomatic pouches in order to undermine Dodd’s position.
Summing it Up: Larson defines the term narrative nonfiction by offering simple stories of relationships that show rather than explain how Hitler and his band of miscreants assembled power so quickly. Read this historical account of the rise of Nazi Germany for its insight into why the world failed to see what Hitler was doing. Enjoy it for its almost gossip-column glimpses of Berlin society in 1933.
Rating: 4 stars
Category: Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May, 2011
Author website: http://eriklarsonbooks.com/
Reading Group Guide: http://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/14-non-fiction/8375-in-the-garden-of-beasts-larson
Interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/09/135922322/william-dodd-the-u-s-ambassador-in-hitlers-berlin
What Others are Saying:
Chicago Sun Times: http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/5142857-421/review-in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson.html
Kirkus Reviews: http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/non-fiction/erik-larson/garden-beasts/#review