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In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

1st June 2011

An American family takes a diplomatic post in Berlin as the storm clouds of World War II gather. The goal? Attempt to get Germany to pay back its debts from World War I. The result? Confusion and misinformation as the States and diplomats across the world try to ascertain Hitler’s true intentions.

In this newest work of nonfiction by Erik Larson, the Dodds are not the ideal diplomatic family: Dr. Dodd is a history professor whose sole goal is to finish his book on the Civil War in the States. His daughter is a promiscuous, married-but-separated young woman who does not quite know how to behave herself abroad. The powers that be don’t like the Dodds, but the family extensively documents the innocuous and not-so-innocuous moments beginning in 1933 and ending in 1937 when the Dodds leave Berlin.

Though the family was interesting (and they were/are), the most absorbing aspect of this book was understanding, through their eyes, a bit more why the world was not or chose not to be aware of what was happening in Germany. When the Dodds first arrive, the family is enchanted with Germany and its villages. Martha and her brother Bill take drives through the countryside and are impressed with the German people. Even after witnessing incidents of abuse and cruelty, they pass it off as isolated offenses. Dr. Dodd meets with other diplomats and sees hope in some figures in the Nazi party. He is much more concerned with living on a budget, though his assistants and the State Department begrudge his frugality.  However, as the corruption, spying, and infighting worsen, the Dodds feel the tension and terror and begin to attempt to warn those outside with little effect.

I honestly did not want the book to end. World War II fascinates me anyway, but I have not often found a lot of nonfiction or fiction dealing with the pregnant years after World War I and before World War II. Erik Larson’s genius is in finding smaller stories and tackling them, using them to flesh out the nuances with greater historical value.

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. Check out my other favorite from Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City.

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness