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Review: ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ by Erik Larson

Review: ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ by Erik Larson post image

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review/at BEA
Rating: ★★★★½

One Sentence Summary: In 1933, the first year of Hitler’s reign in Germany, a mild-mannered professor was appointed the American ambassador to Berlin and became one of the first witnesses to the atrocities soon to come in Europe.

Two Sentence Review: I’m drawing a blank right now… In the Garden of Beasts is a good book and I enjoyed reading it. Enough said?

Why I Read It: Erik Larson is one of those big narrative nonfiction writers, so when I saw he was speaking at BEA about his new book, I knew I had to read it.

Long Review: At the very end of In the Garden of Beasts, after the conclusion and notes and even the index, there is a short and eerie epigraph from author Christopher Isherwood, from his1962 book Down There on a Visit. It reads:

I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten — a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor, with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.

That is, I think, the central theme of In the Garden of Beasts, which tells the story of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933 and gives an American perspective on Hitler’s rise to power.

William Dodd only wanted to be an ambassador because he thought the job would give him time to pursue his grand passion: a multi-volume history of the American South that he’d been working on for decades. Through a series of political maneuvers and rejections, Dodd was eventually offered the ambassadorship to Germany — mostly because no one else wanted it. He and his family moved to Hitler’s Berlin in 1933, entering a country in a state of flux. The move into a house near Berlin’s central park, Tiergarten, which translates to “the Garden of Beasts.”

Hitler was not entirely in control yet yet, and in fact many people outside the country didn’t think Hitler’s party had a chance to hang on to power. As Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter Martha soon discovered, Germany was a country with a thriving culture and night-life, which she enjoyed unrestricted. However, as politics in Germany began to shift, both Dodd and Martha begin to have misgivings about their new home… but will the realization come too late?

I had the fabulous chance to see Erik Larson speak about this book at BEA this year, which gave me so many things to think about as I read. In the speech, Larson said he wouldn’t have written about Dodd or Martha on their own — neither one is quite big enough to carry a story of this magnitude. But together, this father and daughter pair provide a really beautiful contrast about the ways average people across the globe could be duped into allowing Hitler to rise to power.

Dodd, whom friends and critics alike described as a typical professor, was a reluctant critic of the German regime. He didn’t want to get involved, but as he began to witness more and more violence perpetrated against Americans visiting Germany, he began to reluctantly express his concerns to those in power back in the United States. However, with many enemies within the State Department, Dodd’s warnings went unheeded.

Martha, in contrast, is a flamboyant and fun-loving girl who becomes enchanted with the “New Germany,” going out to parties with the soldiers of the Third Reich and having numerous affairs with men of various political affiliations. She’s blissfully, even deliberately, ignorant of the threat the regime poses and instead is enamoured with the culture and spirit of her new home.

I loved the way that reading about Martha brought a new perspective to some of the “characters” we know so much about in the history of WWII. During her stay, she meets and interacts with people like Hermann Göring and Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, familiar figures in Nazi history. Martha’s journals and correspondence, which Larson quotes from extensively, paint a wholly different portrait of these men, and others, which was fascinating to read.

By putting this father and daughter next to each other, Larson is able to show the range of attitudes about Hitler’s rise to power — veiled caution to complete disregard — and how those attitudes came about. There’s no real blame to be placed on any one person or even group of people for letting Germany derail so completely, and I felt like Larson was able to make that case through the book.

The only other Larson book I’ve read is Devil in the White City, which was about the the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and a serial killer in the city. Ultimately, I think In the Garden of Beasts might be a better book — the narrative feels like it has more of a cohesion to it. There aren’t as many moments of obvious violence, but the tension Larson builds through the small acts of terror he writes about build to a terrifying conclusion.

I was enamoured with this book from start to finish and would highly recommend it.

Other Reviews: the picky girl |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • Amy June 14, 2011, 6:06 am

    Sounds like an interesting book, and definitely a good read. I’ve yet to read anything by Larson. I like that he is writing more non-fiction that interests a wide audience, but I prefer the less narrative stuff myself so have been shying away. One of these days I’m going to give him a try! I like how you say that he shows the different attitudes without placing blame on any one person.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:34 pm

      I think Larson is worth a try, even for more serious nonfiction readers. It’s clear in every book that he’s done his research, and I’m always impressed with the way he balances story and information in each book. I got a good idea of the beginnings of WWII in this book — something I haven’t really gotten since my last history class.

  • Kathleen June 14, 2011, 7:29 am

    My husband read this and loved it. I’ve read two of Larsen’s books and enjoyed them both, so I added this one to my list!

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:34 pm

      Excellent! In a lot of ways this felt like Devil in the White City, but I liked it more — there was more narrative flow to all of it that I liked.

  • Stephanie June 14, 2011, 8:20 am

    I was on the fence about this one but you’re making me think I would really like this one. I absolutely loved The Devil in the White City.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:35 pm

      It’s worth a try, I think, especially if you can get it from the library as a test out. I thought it was quite interesting, and Martha is a lot of fun to read about.

  • Steph June 14, 2011, 8:44 am

    I don’t read much non-fiction (gasp!), but I did read Larson’s last book and enjoyed that quite a lot… The subject matter of this one appeals to me less (I kind of feel like there is an oversaturation of books about WWII), but I am positive after reading your review that it must be a fabulous read. I’ll probably wait for this one to come out in paperback, but I’ll keep my eye on it.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:36 pm

      I always feel that way too — I tend to avoid WWII nonfiction for that reason. But this was a story that I didn’t know, which I really liked. I don’t know a lot about the origins of WWII outside the U.S., so this was a nice way to get some of that. Do keep an eye out for it when it’s less expensive!

  • jenn aka the picky girl June 14, 2011, 10:04 am

    I really really loved this book. And I’d say to Steph – yes, oversaturation maybe, but this isn’t about WWII. It’s about the lead up to it, which is what I found so engrossing.

    I, too, gushed about Devil in the White City, but I also thought it could have done without the serial killer angle as I was much more interested in the Exposition.

    Here’s the link to my review: http://wp.me/p1q15l-lP

    Adding yours now!

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:37 pm

      Yes, totally agreed — it’s not really about the war, but how ignoring Hitler and part of his regime let some of WWII happen.

      That’s funny about Devil in the White City — I liked the killer part better, for most of the book anyway 🙂 Thanks for the link to your review — I’ll add it!

  • Man of la Book June 14, 2011, 1:46 pm

    Thanks for the excellent review Kim, I’m looking forward to reading this one.


    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:37 pm

      Thanks, I hope you enjoy it!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 14, 2011, 3:31 pm

    So, this is a true story? It sounds amazing!

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:38 pm

      Yep, crazy, right? I love that about nonfiction 🙂

  • Jeanne June 14, 2011, 6:18 pm

    You’ve moved this book up on my TBR list!

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:38 pm

      Excellent; I hope you enjoy it when you have a chance to read it!

  • Aarti June 15, 2011, 12:51 pm

    I really liked Larson’s Devil in the White City and want to read his other nonfiction as well- this one in particular sounds fascinating. He is a great author, so I imagine seeing him speaking was great fun!

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:39 pm

      He has a lot of nonfiction I’m really excited about. I have a copy of Thunderstruck on my shelf now waiting to be read. And yes, hearing him speak was so much fun; I love learning about the process nonfiction authors go through when trying to find their stories.

  • softdrink June 15, 2011, 5:41 pm

    Yay for the 4 1/2 stars! My uncle just called and asked if I wanted to read this when he was done, so yay for reading uncles, too.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:40 pm

      It was very good read. It kept me engrossed in airports and on airplanes, which I always think is the mark of a good book. I’m glad you’ll have a copy to read!

  • Gwen June 15, 2011, 8:16 pm

    I am so jealous that you got to see Larson at BEA and can’t wait to read this baby. Made a mental deal with myself, can’t read it until I get through 10 other books AND write the reviews for them. So far, I have made it.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:40 pm

      He was so cool! He made a comment that he’s like the Indiana Jones of libraries, which was so funny! And wow, that’s quite the deal — good luck 🙂

  • Jennifer June 15, 2011, 9:01 pm

    This sounds like a really fascinating book with a really fresh perspective on Nazi era Germany. I don’t really read much narrative nonfiction but this sounds like a great place to start.

    • Kim June 16, 2011, 7:41 pm

      Yes, that’s such a great sentence to describe it. I wish I’d thought of it myself 🙂 I think Larson is a good intro to narrative nonfiction sort of writer; he does it really well.

  • Kathleen June 24, 2011, 2:58 pm

    I just started this book last night and am so excited to keep reading it after your review!

    • Kim June 24, 2011, 4:33 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that — I hope you enjoy it!

  • Cass July 2, 2011, 9:01 pm

    I looooved this book–I think I’ve tried to convince four people to read it since I finished it. Thank you for hooking me up with a copy!

    • Kim July 5, 2011, 8:25 pm

      Yay! I’m so glad you liked it 🙂 I love when people who have similar tastes also love a book that I loved!