Review: In the Garden of Beasts

One of the many things I like about being in a book club is that it forces me to read out of my comfort zone. I started a book club about a month back, and the first book we decided to read was a non-fiction novel entitled In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I am always interested in reading non-fiction, but when it comes to actually finishing one, I am unsuccessful. I don’t know what it is, but I have a very hard time getting past the first 100 pages.

Summary: Clearly, this is a story about Berlin during the rise of Hitler. It does not take place during the war itself, but rather the years leading up to it. The story begins in 1933 and follows the newly appointed American ambassador and his family. William Dodd was a frugal man trying to live within his means, while his daughter, Martha, fell in love with the glamorous parties held by high ranking officials of the Third Reich. Larson uses journals, letters, and other personal writing to weave the narrative. While the story mostly pertains to Martha and her many trysts, we are given a different look at America’s take on the early years of Hitler’s Germany and an inside look at some of the most mysterious and intimidating people of that time. The book ends not long after the Night of the Long Knives (which is basically a killing spree orchestrated by Hitler), and Dodd being removed from office. And no, I am not spoiling anything for you. It’s history.

Thoughts: I have always been relatively interested in Germany history. Part of it is that most of my ancestors were from that country, but a lot of it is because I am baffled at how the world allowed the whole thing to happen for so long. Despite the fact that I took a class in college, there was so much in this book that was new to me. Some of the top officials, such as Goring, are seen in a new light due to the parties that were attended by Dodd and his family. It was particularly interesting to hear about Martha’s lack of decency and everyone’s reaction to it (or lack thereof in the case of her parents).

Larson did a lot of homework. By using personal writing, we are able to get a glimpse of what people were really thinking. And let me tell you… it horrified me. Even Americans were talking about “the Jewish problem,” and even after seeing terrible act after terrible act performed by the Nazis, they did nothing. Even after a large event were many were murdered, there was no reaction. Here is a quote from the book that I think sums it up:

Hitler’s purge would become known as “The Night of the Long Knives” and in time would be considered one of the most important episodes in his ascent, the first act in the great tragedy of appeasement. Initially, however, its significance was lost. No government recalled its ambassador or filed a protest; the populace did not rise in revulsion.

Reading this book put a whole new spin on my view of America prior to entering World War II. I am not sure if that is altogether a good thing.

Review: This book stirred something within me. A little bit of bafflement, a dash of confusion, a splash of curiosity, and a whole lot of anger. It got me thinking. It made me question what they teach in history class. While the synopsis on the book cover makes it seem like this is a story about Dodd, the majority of the narrative surrounds his daughter. I am okay with that, since she was the one mingling with Nazis and living a more active life. It kept me reading. In the end, I give it a 6.5 out of 10. I almost went to 7, but it took me too long to get through. The first 50 or so pages were a little slow moving, and when Larson does talk about Dodd, it is mostly about the fact that he only wants to complete his book about the South and being ambassador to pesky Germany gives him no free time to do so. Also, when I was finished, I felt like I had read 600 pages, when in fact it is around 330 (without the appendices). Still, the book was interesting and thought provoking. My book club had a very lengthy and in-depth discussion about it. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in history or general non-fiction. So I guess you could say, I am glad I was forced to finish this one.


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