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Cannonball Read IV: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

By Doodlepants | Books | March 27, 2012 |

By Doodlepants | Books | March 27, 2012 |


For me, the best non-fiction books are the ones that read like fiction. Stories that are so exciting and characters so three dimensional that you have to take a step back from the book and remind yourself that the events in the novel really occurred, that they are not merely some figment of the author’s imagination. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, was just that sort of non-fiction that I crave, a page turning story about Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Hitler’s Germany.

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of Berlin during Hitler’s rise through power from the perspective ofAmerica’s ambassador, William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha. William Dodd is uprooted from his modest life as a history professor in Chicago to the glitzy life of Ambassador in Berlin. As ambassador Dodd shuns the conventional role of his predecessors and insists on continuing with his frugal lifestyle, driving himself and refusing to employ a house full of servants. Dodd refuses to accept his peers’ view of humoring Hitler, instead questioning the regimen that is rising to power. Martha, meanwhile, becomes enamored of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Berlin. She loves the glamour associated with the Nazi party and flits her way between social engagements and romantic trysts, becoming involved with many of Berlin’s elite. The story climaxes with “the night of long knives”, a night when hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people are murdered, that Hitler’s true capacity for violence and hatred becomes known to both William and Martha.

While the plot I described might sound slightly interesting to the couple of history buffs reading this review, I imagine that a majority of people read my synopsis and groaned, another World War II story. The joy of reading In the Garden of Beasts comes not from the actual plot (which I admit at times can be a bit dry and middle-school-history- bookish) but from Erik Larson’s rich description that transports the reader to Berlin with the Dodd family. Larson captures the sights, smells, and sounds of Berlin in such detail that as a reader you believe that you are sitting in a meeting with Hitler or at a party in the embassy. Despite the rather grim topic of the book, Larson manages to find idiosyncratic moments that make the reader chuckle and that humanize figures that history has portrayed to be larger than life. Larson successfully takes a moment in history that we know so well and delves so deeply into the details of that moment that suddenly the reader sees the event from a whole new angle.

In the Garden of Beasts was a page turning non-fiction that will transport the reader to Hitler’s Germany. For those who have read Larson’s The Devil in the White City and loved it, this book will not disappoint. For those who haven’t read one of Larson’s brilliant non-fiction novels, give it a shot, you are missing out and might be surprised that there is excitement in history.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of Doodlepants’s reviews on the group blog.