In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is the modern king of creative nonfiction. He knows how to take a true story, find the most intriguing characters within the situation and then build a completely character driven non-fiction narrative. His book Devil in the White City was the first book to make me realize that nonfiction can be just as compelling and exciting as novels. Thank you, Mr. Larson!
So yeah, I was looking forward to In the Garden of the Beasts, in which Larson tells how Hitler came to power in the 1930s, through the eyes of American Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Dodd, an unassuming professor, is tasked with balancing American diplomatic duties with Hitler’s insanity, as he gets more and more unpredictable. Martha, on the other hand, is 24 and enjoying the handsome men and parties of Berlin. The book culminates in the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler ordered the executions of dozens of his political enemies and then came in to full power.
Although the book was interesting, I did find the scope to be small. That was the whole idea — to show the horrors of Hitler’s government through a very narrow viewpoint — but sometimes it just seemed to be so caught up in the political intrigue that the horrors of what was actually happening to German Jews was dwarfed by political finagling. Yes, Dodd did try to express America’s disapproval at Germany’s actions, but it was never nearly enough. Could it have ever been enough? Was he caught up in something just too big for him to really make a difference?
Also, I found following Martha’s plotline to be fascinating, as she was a Nazi sympathizer, in that she couldn’t look past the handsome men, the glamour of parties and the pretty city of Berlin to see the coming atrocities. While not a sympathetic character, it’s disturbingly easy to see how one could get caught up as Martha did. This is a more chilling reminder of the need to stay vigilant against evil than anything else.
So, overall, not as compelling as The Devil in the White City or Isaac’s Storm, but an important book about insidious evil and those who are stuck within it.