four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
By: 
Erik Larson
user_rating: 
0

Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

missing imagePopular historian and journalist Erik Larson has authored six works of nonfiction, including Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999) and The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003).

The Topic: After several qualified candidates prudently rejected the post, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came across an unlikely contender for the ambassadorship to volatile Germany--University of Chicago Professor William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered, unassuming historian with no diplomatic experience. Dodd arrived in Berlin in 1933 with his wife and two adult children, and although he was initially willing to give the new government, headed by Adolf Hitler, the benefit of the doubt, he could not ignore the National Socialists' extremism and brutality for long. While Dodd's vivacious, sexually adventurous daughter Martha took high-ranking Nazi officials as lovers, Dodd publicly opposed the regime and sounded the alarm in Washington--actions that put himself and his family in grave danger.
Crown. 464 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780307408846

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In the Garden of Beasts ... is a dazzling amalgam of reportage, historical digging and narrative drive that casts an eerie new light on the long prelude to World War II. ... Larson's study reads like a suspense novel, replete with colorful characters, both familiar and those previously relegated to the shadows." John Barron

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"Larson re-creates the almost unbearable tension, and the book becomes a page turner, even though readers have some idea of what will ultimately happen in Germany. ... In the end, In the Garden of Beasts is a stunning, provocative immersion into a Berlin caught up in the powers of government, money and corruption." Catherine Mallette

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Dodds' story is rich with incident, populated by fascinating secondary characters, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd's mission. ... Dodd spent four years, from 1933 to 1937, in what was arguably the worst job of that era. And he ultimately recognized enough reality, and clung to enough dignity, to make Mr. Larson's powerful, poignant historical narrative a transportingly true story." Janet Maslin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Larson's fastidious scholarship provides the appropriate gravity to this subject. But his psychological perception and empathic imagination lend flesh to the documents, music to the ballrooms. ... Though our familiarity with the horrific aftermath haunts every page, the colorful intelligence of the Dodd family and their peculiar destinies make this history compulsive reading." Katherine Dunn

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The author of The Devil in the White City, Larson prides himself, with good reason, on his ‘ability to mourn tragedy and at the same time appreciate its narrative power.' Although In the Garden of Beasts traverses familiar terrain, it does, quite vividly, surveil ‘the breadth and depth of the landscape' created by Hitler and remind us that the world did virtually nothing as the skies darkened and the nights grew bloody." Glenn C. Altschuler

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"I found Larson's book to be utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It is--and marvelous stuff. You really couldn't invent it in a novel because no one would believe you." Philip Kerr

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As a suspense narrative, Beasts achieves mixed results: It's hard to warm up to the well-meaning but outmanned Dodd and his feckless, flirtatious daughter. But as a work of popular history, Beasts is gripping, a nightmare narrative of a terrible time." Mary Ann Gwinn

Critical Summary

"An on-the-ground documentary of a society going mad in slow motion" (Chicago Sun-Times), this harrowing and suspenseful story examines the rise of the Nazis through the experiences of a single family. Well known for his meticulous research, Larson draws on letters, diaries, and other primary sources to paint a vivid, richly detailed portrait of this critical era, immersing readers in the electrifying and decadent city of 1930s Berlin, perilously poised on the brink of ruin. Although the Seattle Times was unable to relate to the supposedly lackluster ambassador and his superficial daughter, the Chicago Sun-Times, among others, praised Larson's deft characterizations. Most agreed with the New York Times that In the Garden of Beasts is "by far [Larson's] best and most enthralling work of novelistic history" to date. For the many Bookmarks fans of Larson's Devil in the White City, that's high praise indeed.