Last weekend while prowling the stacks at my local public library I came across Erik Larson’s newest book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Germany. With a huge stack of library books already sitting by my bed, needless to say I was a bit hesitant to grab Larson’s book. But then I remembered a co-worker of mine had read the book months ago and had nothing but good things to say about it. Likewise one of my favorite bloggers, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness also was impressed by Larson’s 2011 book. So, after a bit of minor soul-searching I grabbed Larson’s book and headed to the automated check out machine. After finishing In the Garden of Beasts late last night I’m happy I threw caution to the wind and snagged it. While it didn’t blow me away like Larson’s earlier book The Devil in the White City, I found In the Garden of Beasts to be a fast-paced, well-researched and engrossing account of Hitler’s rise to power as seen through the eyes of America’s ambassador and his beautiful and adventurous twenty-something daughter.
Like many people caught up during a pivotal period of history, Ambassador Dodd embodied the best and the worst of qualities that we, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight after nearly 80 years can easily see. Principled, and even a bit naive, he prefered to live a frugal lifestyle when compared to that of his more patrician and free-spending colleagues. Though he would chastise Germany’s young Nazi movement for its gross human rights violations, he would also urge American Jewish groups to tone down their vocal condemnations of Hitler’s regime. His honesty, idealism, steadfast refusal to live a profligate lifestyle and obliviousness to hide-bound protocol would earn him the scorn of both the American diplomatic establishment and the Nazi regime, causing FDR to formally sack him in the late 1930s.
But In the Garden of Beast is his daughter Martha’s story as much as Ambassador Dodd’s. Young, attractive and sexually precocious with a stable of high society boyfriends, (not to mention an estranged husband back in the States), Martha was the Kim Kardashian of her day. If People magazine had existed in pre-war Berlin, the glamorous Martha Dodd would have frequently graced its cover.
As you might have guessed, I enjoyed Larson’s book and burned through it in what seemed like only a few days. While I might have liked The Devil in White City a bit more, In the Garden of Beasts is a very good book. Needless to say I have no complaints. So give it a shot. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.