Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about:
Just months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, William E. Dodd was asked to be the new ambassador to the United States in Germany. As he settles in to his new home in Berlin along with his wife, daughter Martha and son Bill, Dodd struggles to fit in with flamboyant diplomats and Nazi officials. Dodd is hesitant to accept this "New Germany" and its uncomfortably strong anti-semitic sentiment, though he does harbor some dislike of Jews himself. His daughter, however, is eager to accept  the exciting new ideas and ardent enthusiasm of the Nazis. True to her typical young American self, she offends many with her outspoken comments and has many, many affairs, to the embarrassment of other American officials. However, as time passes and the violence becomes more and more prevalent, Martha and her family find themselves severely disillusioned with this beautiful country and its new government that seemed so promising.

Larson based this non-fictional work on the extensive diaries, letters, and memoirs written by both William Dodd and his daughter Martha. 

I thought: At first I was hesitiant about this book after scanning Greg's review on New Dork Review of Books, but ultimately I agree with Greg: I loved it. One of the reason I was hesitant was because I thought the title was melodramatic, until Greg explained that it's a translation of Teirgarten, the central garden of Berlin. Also, I'm often hesitant to read non-fiction books about history, especially moments in history like this one that are so often distorted by the extreme emotion people tend to feel about it. However, I was extremely impressed with the way Larson approached such a charged era. Instead of relying on pure shock value, Larson delves deep and reveals "an era of suprising nuance and complexity," as it says on the jacket of my copy. 

The Dodds are very endearing in their stereotypical Americanness, especially Martha. Larson did a terrific job constructing a fascinating story from their diaries and letters.

Also, the "Sources and Acknowledgments" section at the end was surprisingly interesting, as well the GREAT  and very extensive footnotes that have all kinds of extra little stories and facts. This book was very well researched. 

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: If you're like me and are disappointed to see shows like Swamp People take over the Hitler shows on the History Channel, this book is one you'll like.

Warnings: Some violence, as you would expect, but nothing gratuitous.

Favorite excerpts:

At eleven o'clock the next morning, July 5, 1933, the Dodds took a taxi to the wharf and boarded their ship, the Washington, bound for Hamburg . . . A dozen or so reporters also swarmed aboard and cornered Dodd on deck as he stood with his wife and Bill. At that moment Martha was elsewhere on the ship. The reporters threw out questions and prodded the Dodds to pose as if waving good-bye. With reluctance they did so, Dodd wrote, "and unaware of the similarity of the Hitler salute, then unknown to us, we raised our hands."
     The resulting photographs caused a minor outcry, for they seemed to capture Dodd, his wife, and son in mid-Heil.
     Dodd's misgivings flared. By this point he had begun to dread leaving Chicago and his old life. As the ship eased from its moorage the family experienced what Martha described later as "a disproportionate amount of sadness and foreboding." Martha wept.

What I'm reading next: Not sure. I'm about to go look at my bookshelves and decide.