Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. 2011.

The year is 1933, and President Roosevelt is looking for a new American Ambassador for Germany. Many have turned down the job, but one man accepts. William E. Dodd, a history professor, thinks that being an ambassador will give him more time to work on his book, The Old South. But things are not as they seem in Germany, and the longer the Dodds reside there, more and more of Hitler’s infamous designs are revealed including a night of horror and bloodshed.

In the Garden of Beasts focuses mainly on Ambassador Dodd and his crusade to change not only German policies regarding American tourists and, to a lesser degree, the Jewish population, but also the way Ambassadors did business. As a “Jeffersonian Democrat,” Dodd was appalled at the exorbitant amount of money spent on dinners and parties by ambassadors and foreign diplomats. This view made him vastly unpopular with his peers. Dodd added to his unpopularity by standing against Hitler’s injustice and often refusing to attend Hitler’s dinners or speeches. While Dodd failed at alerting the U.S. of Hitler’s nefarious designs, he did what he could to stand against them.

Laron’s narrative also focuses on Martha Dodd, Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, and her many affairs with men, including a member of the Soviet NKVD (a predecessor of the KGB), and the head of the Gestapo. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to see Martha’s evolution of thought concerning Germany and Hitler’s government. She started out enchanted by Germany and its people. A journalist at heart, Martha recorded many of the events she witnessed and her thoughts concerning them, often rationalizing the cruel treatment of the Jewish people. However, as time progressed, Martha grew more and more weary of Hitler’s reign.

If you’ve never read a work by Erik Larson, go immediately to your library (or for our Mackin customers) and check out this book. You should probably also reserve his older works such as Devil in the White City (2003) or Thunderstruck (2006), so they will be waiting for you when you finish this one. Larson manages to weave an engaging historical narrative while keeping his work nonfiction. Granted, this may be the history major (also the history nerd) in me, but I am amazed at Larson’s ability to do such thorough research, that he can create a fiction-like story that keeps readers engaged until the end.

Lindsey L.