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

The latest non-fiction book by Erik Larson, whose previous two works both blew me away (The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck), this book has what sounds like a riveting premise but what, in my opinion (whatever that’s worth) ends up not having quite enough substance to make for a riveting book.

Set in 1933, it’s about President Roosevelt’s last choice for U.S. Ambassador to Germany, a professor from Chicago named William Dodd.  Dodd’s only real qualifications for the job were his familiarity with Germany, having gone to school outside Berlin for a short time, and fluency in the language — he had no practical experience with politics, and his primary era of historical interest was America’s Deep South, pre- and post-Civil War.  But he had the one qualification Roosevelt desperately needed:  willingness.  After months of having his job offer turned down by men far more qualified, Roosevelt had pretty much given up on ever filling it before Dodd’s name was tossed his way, and he made the post sound pretty sweet.  The Dodds would have the adventure of a lifetime, make more money than they were making in Chicago (no small draw in 1933’s Depression), AND the gig would give the professor more time to work on his four-part book series about the South.  After only short deliberation, Dodd agreed, took the job and moved his wife, son, and 22 year-old daughter Martha to Berlin.

Though Dodd has the job of relevance to the tale, it’s more Martha’s story that gets the focus here, as she begins a series of affairs with various Germans, including one high-ranking member of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, and seems initially blind to the horrors going on in the country around her.

But the longer the Dodds stay in Berlin, the less they can continue to ignore the violent and growing persecution of the Jews.  As their year abroad unfolds, the entire family begins to move from excitement to disbelief straight through to horror, as Martha finally witnesses first-hand the brutal nature of Hitler’s plan.

Inserted into the tale are all the people whose names we know so well — Hitler, with whom Martha is even set up on a date (it doesn’t work out), Hermann Göring, and the sinisterly charming Joseph Goebbels.  Plus: back in the U.S., poet Carl Sandberg, smitten with Martha and writing her constantly (I loved the excerpts from his letters reprinted here), as well as various American political figures of the time, all equally ignorant or in denial about the dramatic change in Germany’s path.

But though there are elements of the book that are definitely intriguing, overall I didn’t feel it had much purpose to it.  There isn’t anything dramatically new revealed — it focuses mostly on the U.S.’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge Hitler’s evil until it was too late to do anything to stop him (the Dodd family serving as a metaphor in that regard for the entire American political machine).  Even after Dodd begins to complain to Roosevelt about the stories he’s hearing all around him, including torture of American Jews in Berlin, Roosevelt and his people continue to plug their ears and sing “la la la, I can’t hear you, la la la!” (I paraphrase) for far too long.   This isn’t new information, though.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

And while I’d never heard of the Dodds before and was interested to learn their story, that story didn’t really amount to much in the end.  Larson instead seemed much more interested in recounting Martha’s various sexual improprieties with a mix of fascination and disdain, and a lot of the passages about her felt like Larson shaking his finger and tsking, while continuing to feed us more juicy gossip about her, as though believing sex is what might make this otherwise somewhat weak tale sell.  (Was he wrong?  Well, *I* read it. . . )

Worse, though, was the feeling I got that Larson had initially wanted to write a book about the early 1930s in Germany and then came up with the Dodd family as the framework, instead of the other way around.  Realizing too late there wasn’t enough substance to their experiences to make the story very engrossing, he then turned to the cheapest writer trick available:  the cliffhanger.  Far, FAR too many sections or chapters end with a variant of “Little did they know the event the happened NEXT would change their lives FOREVER!” Overuse of the cliffhanger gimmick is one of my biggest writing pet peeves, and for Larson, a man I know to be a tremendously talented writer, to rely on it so heavily was just, quite frankly, kind of a bummer.

I’m really interested in WWII history, and for that reason alone, I’m glad I read this book.  If you aren’t as much of a history buff, though, you’ll find little to pull you in here.  Which is a shame because, frankly, I wasn’t at all interested in the Chicago World’s Fair myself, and Devil in the White City was a book that, once started, I found impossible to set down.  Larson’s usual knack for revealing the exciting drama behind the drier history is completely missing here.  And man, I sure hope it turns up soon — like before he starts writing his next book.

Rats.  Is what I’m saying.  This should’ve been a much better book than it is.  And I hate it when that happens.


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