In the Garden of Beasts:
Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson
I’m not usually one to read non-fiction books. After having read the Hunger Games trilogy, I wanted to switch up what I was reading and was looking to start something a little more challenging. I like to alternate between what I usually refer to as “fluff” books, and ones that have a little more meat to them. Through people at work, I heard about In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. It sounded intriguing, and I’ve always been particularly interested in this period of history so I decided to give it a try.
To give a little background information since people might not know as much about this book (I don’t see people constantly tweeting about it unlike the trilogy my last blog post revolved around), In the Garden of Beasts tells the true life story of William Dodd who served as the American Ambassador to Germany from 1933-1937. Ambassador Dodd brought his family with him to Germany during this time, including his daughter Martha Dodd. The narration mainly focuses on these two characters and the relationships they have with those they meet in German and for the Ambassador, politicians at home. Dodd was most definitely not the first choice for the position; those asked before him declined the role due to the unstable condition of Germany. In convincing Dodd to take the position, he was reassured that he would be able to focus a lot of his time on his own personal writing. This, as he soon discovered, would not be the case. Martha, just freshly divorced, joins her father, older brother and mother in Berlin for what she believes will be a grand time. The family did not know what they were getting into.
I have read a lot of books that take place in pre-war and World War II Europe. All fiction. Most containing more action. What is eerie and most striking about In the Garden of Beasts is this sort of slow, steady march into madness that is prewar Germany. So many books boast the tell-tale signs of what was to come and many of the individual accounts that have come to light are personalized stories describing the fear and oppression that they felt. Larson, through the Dodds, offers none of this. It is so very different than anything else I’ve read about the time period.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book revolved not around Ambassador Dodd, but his daughter, Martha. She arrives in Germany thinking life is just one big party, and for a while it is for her. She is dazzled by the parties and socializes with many members of the Nazi party. She also socializes with people thought to be acting as Russian spies. Hell, she socializes. Bluntly stated, she was a party-girl, a flirt, and while I wouldn’t go quite so far to say “loose,” she was anything but innocent. It is her reactions to the changes in Germany that, while at times made me want to shake her, made the book all the more interesting to read.
While I did like this book on a whole, I will say that it did take longer for me to get through than most books I pick up. The book is fact-heavy (to be expected considering it is non-fiction) and I’ll admit that at times I got confused by who was who. I’m a self-admitted speed-reader and I really had to slow myself down and pay attention to the details.
So if you’re looking for an interesting and historical read for the beach this summer (most people aren’t, but hey, I don’t judge), give In the Garden of Beasts a try. It’s definitely worth the read.