In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Want to know what it would be like to try to talk Satan out of being such a dick? Consider reading In the Garden of Beasts!
Erudite but ineffectual historian, Dr. William E. Dodd was chosen to be Ambassador to Germany in the decade leading up to WWII, because President Roosevelt couldn't find anyone else willing to take on the job. In 1933 Dodd was tasked with handling relations with a rabid and deranged political phoenix named Adolf Hitler. Perhaps you've heard of him?
Dodd has brought along his family. This was going to be a nice little holiday, wherein he could finish a book he'd been working on and his family could enjoy the Germany he remembered from his school days. But that was a long time ago and German had changed. Dodd and his family's idea of Germans must necessarily change as well.
Martha! Martha! Martha!
This is just as much a story of political intrigue as it is an innocence lost/coming of age tale.
Martha Dodd, the ambassador's fetching daughter is a socialite of the first order. Men seem to throw themselves at her (even her own father, in a way). Much of the book follows her numerous trysts with many a notable figure of the day, writer Carl Sandberg for one and even Hitler himself entertained the idea of making a match.
Larson and other biographers can thank her and her father's proclivity for writing letters and journals as the reason for the wealth of insight into the lives of these somewhat innocuous people. I say "somewhat" in reference to the Dodd's ambassadorial ineptitude, while giving a nod to Martha's post WWII involvement in the cold war spy game. Now I feel I must make reparations for my use of "ineptitude," for I doubt very much that any ambassador sent over to deal with Hitler's steamroller regime at the time could've done anything to change the course of seemingly inevitable history.
Erik Larson is making a name for himself in the modern era's take on dramatic non-fiction. This subject being so recent, he doesn't have to rely so heavily on supposed conversations or probable scenarios to reconstruct hypothetical scenes. Not only does he have firsthand accounts from the Dodds themselves, but there are also preserved documents, news stories, even eyewitness accounts. What Larson does with this wealth of information is not outstandingly spectacular, but it is an admirable piece of work and an interesting viewpoint from which to approach the coming of World War II.
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