(not mine: photo credited from here)
In the Garden of Beasts is a remarkably well written book about the politics of 1933-1937 Berlin, from the eyes of an unassuming American ambassador named William Dodd. Dodd was actually Roosevelt’s fifth choice for American ambassador to Berlin at that time, but oddly enough, he was the one that accepted the position, although he was certainly not the “average” ambassador. He hated to squander money, and often spoke of things that other men in his same situation would have avoided.
The book focuses in on the relationships between the many different people that the Dodd family met in their time in Berlin. Martha, William Dodd’s daughter, is the one that gets the most attention, in regards to her relationships, though. Much of the book is focused on telling her story, since in her “wild ways” she got to know plenty of men intimately – men that were higher-ups in German government, the Gestapo, or the Stormtroopers. By the time the book ends, the reader is left wondering just how many affairs Martha had had over the years with young, handsome German men… and just how much she actually came to know of the threat that Hitler posed for the entire world during that time.
While In the Garden of Beasts ends prior to World War II beginning, Larson captures the very essence of the terror and heightened awareness within Germany, as well as the strained relations between Germany and other countries. It is said that Larson is master of novelized history, and indeed, this book did read like a novel… while it was definitely a nonfiction book, there were many sections that were written with such lifelike detail, it felt as though Larson were actually creating the characters himself – or at the very least, had known them personally. Of course, neither is true.
Normally, I don’t read much nonfiction, because in the past I have found that most nonfiction is dry and difficult for me to get through. This selection was this month’s book group’s selection at my local library, and although I had to miss the discussion about it due to health problems (much to my chagrin), I highly recommend it to anyone. Yes, anyone. It is so fascinating, yet is not overly political, overly sexual, or overly terrifying. It has all of those aspects and more, painting a wonderfully broad and fulfilling picture of pre-WWII Berlin. If I were you, I would go out and buy a copy if you’re at all interested in WWII history; In the Garden of Beasts captures perfectly so many of the feelings that are lost in modern-day literature about WWII. I love all fiction that has to do with the WWII time period, especially if the story takes place in Europe, but this book captured so much more than an average literary novel would. With the liberal use of letters, diaries, and excerpts from speeches, Larson recreates a dazzling world filled with danger, love, fear, anxiety, and excitement.