In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” is another of Erik Larson’s non-fiction works that reads like a novel. Larson is the master of this type of literature, having previously written “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America“, “Thunderstruck“, and “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History“.   He tends to like long, detailed titles on his books and he writes long, detailed books.

Several years ago I read ”The Devil in the White City…” about the Chicago World’s Fair and really enjoyed it.    His latest work, “In the Garden of Beasts” was released in May 2011. It was one of those books that I had picked up numerous times in bookstores and thought I would like to read, but I did not actually decide to read it until late June 2012. I took it to the beach and read much of it on my vacation, but did not finish it then. I read some other things while reading “In the Garden of Beasts” and finally finished the book a few weeks ago. I say “finally” because for me it was a rather laborious read…a book I was interested in, but not one that I just could not put down.

The book is intriguing and is written about a time in our recent history that we look back on now and say “how did the world let all that happpen?”  The story revolves around William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became the United States’ ambassador to Germany, right in the height of Hitler’s rise to power. The story also revolves around Dodd’s daughter, Martha, and her freewheeling spirit and lifestyle. Ambassador Dodd was not the typical ambassador and went into the job committed to live a simple life in Berlin, unlike most ambassadors and their lavish living at that time. Dodd’s quest for simplicity as an ambassador was sharply contrasted by his daughter, who brought her various scandalous affairs and relationships right into the heart of the ambassador’s residence and into the heart of Larson’s story.

It is fascinating, and scary, to read about those horrendous days when Hitler was reigning in his control of the German government and how the world was so slow to believe and comprehend what was happening. Dodd, who was not a popular figure in the U.S. State Department and its diplomatic circles, began to see what Hitler and his Nazi allies were doing as they consolidated power and unabashedly used that power to eliminate the people who stood in their way or just did not meet their standards of humanity. Ambassador Dodd tried to communicate to Washington the atrocities he was finding in Hitler’s Berlin, but for the most part, his words were met with deaf ears. Today we can look back on that time of history and see with clear hindsight what Hitler was doing to the Jewish people and others, but Larson shows in his book how slowly the world came to understand this.  Dodd was clearly no visionary and he was thrust into a very unenviable position in a Berlin that was being turned upside down. His ambassadorial skills were not strong but it appears that he did try to convey back to our country how Hitler was becoming an evil power that had to be stopped.

Ambassador Dodd was a rather boring character, but as we look back at those horrific days, Dodd brought character to the job he held. His daughter, Martha, was far from boring and her character added a spark to the story.  Far from being inhibited like her Father, Martha seemed to just fall in love with every man she ever met. While a non-fiction character, she was a woman who could be the lead character in any wild romantic novel. I must admit that while I struggled to finish “In the Garden of Beasts” as this past summer moved along, it was partly Martha Dodd’s antics that kept me returning to the book with much curiosity as to how her life and adventures would contribute to the story and to the history that was being made.

I did finish “In the Garden of Beasts“. I learned a lot as I read the book and much of what was written has stayed in my thoughts as I am reminded again of the horrors of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. But for me, the book was not a quick read. I do not like to start a book and not finish it so I persevered. It has gotten strong reviews from many and has been a bestseller. But I was disappointed.  The book was just too long and detailed. I kept reading, but more out of a sense of wanting to see the story through than a sense of not being able to put it down.  “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin“ … the long title should have given me a hint at how long the book would be.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being great, I give “In the Garden of Beasts“ a 2

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Erik Larson

Broadway Books

May 2012 (paperback edition - book originally issued in May 2011)

ISBN 9780307408853

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