Erik Larson – In the Garden of Beasts
77. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)
Length: 438 pages
Started: 05 June 2011
Finished: 09 June 2011
Where did it come from? From Crown Publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I enjoyed Larson’s The Devil in the White City way more than I expected to, so I was definitely interested to read his new book.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 15 May 2011.
How could the Nazis
have gained so much power, and
no one protested?
Summary: In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the build-up to World War II from the point of view of people who experienced it first hand: the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, and his family. William Dodd was a history professor by training, not a diplomat, and may have seemed an unlikely choice for the representative of U.S. interests in Germany during such a pivotal time. Arriving in Germany a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Dodd and his family, particularly his lively socialite daughter Martha, had a front-row view of the building popularity of the Nazi party… and the growing climate of suspicion and fear that was slowly co-opting the glorious vision of “New Germany.”
Review: Once again, Larson proves himself to be a writer with an eye for the untold stories of history, and the skill to bring those untold facets of the past to vivid life. So many pages have been written on World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, that it’s hard to imagine each new author finding a new perspective to write about, but Larson does it, and does it with style. Perhaps it’s because he reaches further back in history, focusing on the rise of the Third Reich and the slow build to war, rather than on the war itself. And by focusing his story on a family who was themselves out of place in Hitler’s Germany, he gives the readers easy access to the unfamiliar parts of his tale. I was engaged and fascinated throughout, even though political history writ large has never really been my thing, perhaps because by blending the history with a biography of William and Martha Dodd, everything seemed much more immediate and alive. I did enjoy Martha’s sections more than William’s (despite not particularly liking Martha as a person), as they’re more personal and lively, whereas some of the diplomatic politicking in William’s story got a little tedious, even in Larson’s hands.
There were a few places I had problems, though. First, Larson’s trick of building dramatic tension by ending every chapter with vague but ominous pronouncements about characters or events (ominous pronouncements that, more often than not, were not brought up again until they were resolved in the epilogue) got very tiresome by about halfway through. It’s an effective tactic for driving your reader onwards, but it’s overused, and I thought the story had enough drama on its own merits without needing to artificially create more.
I also found the pacing strange, especially near the end. The bulk of the book is spent on the Dodds’ first year in Berlin, told in occasionally day-by-day detail. Then, very abruptly, Larson starts covering large swaths of time in single paragraphs, so that Dodd’s remaining three years as ambassador take about as many pages as a week or two from the early part of the book. While I can understand why Larson chose to condense time the way he did, I still found that it pulled me out of the story, and took me a while to get settled back into the rhythm of the storytelling again. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: World War II history buffs will enjoy this one, for sure, but Larson’s also a great historian for non-history readers, since he’s very good at finding stories and presenting them in such a way that will draw in even the most inveterate fiction readers.
First Line: Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 47: “There were double-decked omnibuses, S-Bahn trains, and brightly colored trams whose catenaries fired off brilliant blue sparks.” – the cable, running above the track, from which the trolley wire is suspended.
- p. 152: “The ballot also would invite the public to pass judgment upon his foreign policy through a yes-or-no plebiscite.” – a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.
- p. 180: “Martha ordered onion soup, salad, and beer; Voris chose vodka, shashlik, and herring immersed in sour creem and onions.” – shish kebab.
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