Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
Published: May 10, 2011
Hardcover: 450 pages
Source: purchased from Borders

My Rating: 3 stars

Synopsis (from Isaac's Storm, The Devil in the White City, and Thunderstruck have all proven Erik Larson's ability to adroitly craft multilayered nonfiction. In his new In The Garden of Beasts, he demonstrates that gift again as he unfolds the often startling story of William E. Dodd, the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his family. History professor Dodd was an unlikely choice to represent the United States in Hitler's Berlin; indeed, he was FDR's fifth choice for the post. His on-the-job education in the barbarities of the "New Germany" sometimes contrasted with that of his romantic, impressionable, party-loving daughter Martha. Larson places these very personal stories within the context of the ever-worsening events.

My Thoughts: I love anything about World War II, so when I heard that Erik Larson's newest book would be set in Nazi Germany, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy! Covering William Dodd's tenure as the American Ambassador to Germany during the mid-1930s, Larson takes the readers into Nazi Germany to see what an American family witnessed firsthand. The Dodds (William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha, and son William, Jr.) all moved to Berlin and were able to see the Nazi's rise to power. Instead of saying Hitler's rise to power, I say the Nazis, and Larson's book demonstrates how it wasn't Hitler who had absolute power. There were warring interests within the party and several Nazis who fought with one another of power (there were constant battles between the various police units and the leaders in Nazi regime).

I found this book fascinating for so many different reasons. One was that I had no idea about the various police units and how uncoordinated they all were. The SS, the Gestapo, the army. Each unit had different leaders who were out to take down the other leaders! This inside look at the Nazi regime shows how it was doomed to succeed; unfortunately, no one else could see these warring units, so no one knew of the dissention amongst the Nazis themselves. It was also fascinating how little Dodd knew about the current German politcal state. He wanted an ambassador post so he could focus on finishing his 4 volume compendium on the Civil War and believed that an ambassador post would still allow him to have an income while working on his book. It's astonishing that that was his primary motive for an ambassadorship! Also, he didn't really have a clue as to what was going on, and for his first few months, he believed that the Nazis were good for Germany.

Perhaps that most interesting part of this book is the chapters about Martha, Dodd's daughter. She was in her early twenties when they moved to Germany and she had already experienced one failed marriage. She was a modern girl and was romanced by the Nazis. She truly thought that what they were doing was great and was a sympathizer for her first year in Germany. Officals within the embassy were aware of her actions but did nothing to stop her. Her love life is well chronicled throughout this book (she dates a member of the Russian KGB, who is tasked with trying to sway her to the communist party). Martha was continually rumored to be a communist, but she maintains her love for her country.

I could go on about this book all day. It was a truly fascinating read, taking me into a world that I had no idea existed. And the fact that this is non-fiction makes it all the more incredible! If you are interested in WWII, then you need to read this book! It's something that any WWII junkie will love and want to tell everyone about.


  1. I also thought this was a great book -- so, nice to read your thoughts on it. I love how Larson writes -- he's such a storyteller, that history really comes alive.

    Martha was really something, wasn't she?

  2. This book has been on my radar for obvious reasons but I'm interested in why it was 3 stars for you (not that 3 stars is bad). What didn't work for you? I'm just trying to get a feel for what to expect. Because I love WWII but this is nonfiction and so I don't know where this should be on my list. I also don't want to have unrealistic expectations.

  3. Jo - I think Larson could have written a whole book on Martha! She was fascinating and I found it interesting that it was noted among those people who worked for the embassy that she might be a Nazi or Communist sympathizer.

    Alexis - I really did enjoy this book, but I just felt like it was weighed down with too many facts at some points. It would be a bit too much for me, especially when Larson would go on a bit of a tangent on some random fact, write for a page or two about it, and then get back to the main story. If there was a little more editing, it would move a little faster and be more interesting. Definitely check it out though ... I think you would really enjoy it!