Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Review of In the Garden of Beasts

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Isaac's Storm, the story of the great hurricane that obliterated Galveston, Texas in a single night in September 1900, written by Erik Larson.  I also enjoyed The Devil in the White City, and generally find Larson's writing engaging and readable.  He writes nonfiction in the same way Jon Krakauer does - you feel like you're reading a novel and are immediately taken to the place where events are unfolding.  So when I was looking for my next book, I searched to see if Larson had written anything new, and found In the Garden of Beasts.  Although it wasn't something that seemed highly compelling from a subject-matter perspective, I trusted that I would still find it interesting and engaging.  And I did.

Larson tells the story of the Dodd family from 1933-1937, when William E. Dodd left his life as a professor at the University of Chicago to become the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to WWII.  His wife, grown daughter and son move with him, and the book follows the family's (namely his daughter's) exploits and challenges as Hitler grew ever stronger and his maniacal hold on Germany and oppression of Jews grew.

This is a difficult book to review because of the numerous threads that run throughout the story.  First there is Dodd, a frugal, Depression-era man who is acutely aware of the insidiousness of Hitler and his regime, yet unable to gain any traction or respect from within the State Department, and who harbors his own kind of antisemitism.   Then there is his daughter, Martha, his daughter, who is 'taken' by the Nazi lifestyle and enraptured by the power and influence of the many high-ranking officers she brushes elbows with (and more - turns out she slept with quite a few of them too).  And then there are all of the players that weave their way in and out of Ambassador Dodd and Martha's lives as Germany continues to advance towards war while the rest of the world watches. 

I think this last thread was what I actually found most interesting about the book, and where I learned the most: for years the world looked on as Hitler lined up his country and prepared for war, all the while continuing to repress and make his intentions towards Jews very clear.  Yet no one acted.  Dodd saw the writing on the wall and tried, in vain, to get his country to be more proactive.  But even his efforts were weak, at best.  No one thought Hitler would remain in power - he was too crazy, too uneducated, too fascist.  But he did, and he managed to bring almost an entire country and population with him under using oppression, fear, and lawlessness.  By the time the rest of the world finally took notice, it was too late, and WWII was upon them.

Overall, Larson didn't disappoint - I was engaged and interested to learn about the Dodds and their experience, and how their actions and roles impacted the events unfolding at the time (and ultimately, history).


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