Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson

After reading Devil in the White City, I became a huge fan of Erik Larsen, so when I heard on NPR that he had written another book, I knew that I had to read it. I even thought enough of Larsen to actually purchase this book as a hardcover!

In The Garden of Beasts is the story of Hitler's Germany in its infant stages, when Hitler had just been made chancellor and Hindenberg was still President (and some control over Hitler) as observed through William Dodd (the newly minted American ambassador to Germany) and his daughter Martha (who was scandalous by anyone's standards, but perhaps more so considering the time at which she was living). Dodd was an interesting pick for the position - and it's made clear pretty early on that he wasn't FDR's first choice - because he is a history professor, extremely frugal, had no real experience in politics (in spite of his friendship with Woodrow Wilson, of whom he wrote a book), and is very unassuming (which makes him an oddity in the ambassador society and among the Nazis, who are very extravagant). Martha initially falls in love with the burgeoning Nazi movement - she seems to romanticize the movement and sees it as a revolution. She is connected romantically, at various points, to the head of the Gestapo and, when she's not with him, a Soviet spy. She even meets Adolf Hitler at one point. We read not only of Martha's affairs but of Dodd's interactions with the Nazi leaders and the novel culminates with the Night of Long Knives.

This book took my breath away.  Absolutely astounded me.  From the get go, I was absorbed into the lives of William and Martha Dodd, their relationships, their trips, their parties and the people that they met.  I was also impressed by the depth of Larsen's research.  He used mostly primary sources - a lot of the stories and descriptions that he gave were taken from letters, diaries and other writings composed by the people that he was writing about.  The depth of his research and the material was also absolutely remarkable.

What perhaps most impressed me about this was how interesting and accessible Larsen made this topic. He took an extensive amount of information, compiled it and narrated this true story in a way that was interesting, educational and accessible.  He taught about a topic in a humble, everyday manner that would appeal to anyone, even if you don't like history.

Definitely read this one.

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