Review: In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson

I purchased this book in an airport bookstore, having never heard of it before and not quite realizing that the story within was not exactly a work of fiction but rather an account of the experiences of real people based on historical research and personal memoirs.  The fact that the events in the book actually occurred makes the story that much more interesting and overall I enjoyed the story.

In the Garden of Beasts is a book about Berlin in 1933, with the main characters being William Dodd and his family; Dodd was America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany and his stories are so interesting because they give us a glimpse of the period leading up to World War II.  For me, this was a period that was pretty much glossed over in history class; even when I took a history class in university that specifically studied both World Wars, the finer points of Hitler’s ascent to power seem to have been largely missed.

The really fascinating part of this book is the window into life in Berlin and particularly amongst the political class as Hitler began changing Germany in preparation for war.  With the Dodd family, we get to see the German regime from the perspective of an American ambassador (although it appears from this account at least that the American government had little real interest in the drastic changes Hitler was making unless it directly impacted on economic trade with America), as well as from the viewpoint of Dodd’s daughter Martha.  She is the truly engaging character in the novel – Larson describes her as ‘flamboyant’ and ‘entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich’.  This adequately describes Martha and gives a hint at how she occupies her time while her father goes about the business of diplomacy.  Her relationships with various individuals make for some of the most poignant insights in the book.

The book reads much like a fiction novel which is part of what makes it compelling; you don’t feel that you’re thumbing through a history textbook.  The reader gets a taste of events from a very human point-of-view, although incomplete; because by nature a person can only know their own viewpoint of an event, a number of incidents occur in the book that we see only through the eyes of Dodd, or Martha or another character.  This worked for me, it allowed my imagination to fill in some blanks and expressed the tension that the characters must have been perceiving in real life.

If you are a person interested in history, particularly German history or the time period leading up to WWII, you will likely enjoy this book.  I think without that pre-existing interest it might be tough to really ‘get into’ the story, although the book is extremely readable and the characters very colourful indeed.

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