Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: Nonfiction, history
Publisher: Crown, 2011
Source: Received from publisher
Read for: Indie Lit Awards
The Garden of Beasts is the Tiergarten, the home of the misfit American ambassador to Germany during Hitler's rise to power, William E. Dodd. In the Garden of Beasts gives the tale of Hitler's rise to power told through the perspective of Dodd, a man desiring simplicity and frugality wrapped up in a world of intrigue and luxury, and his daughter, Martha, a glamorous socialite who became romantically entangled with many of the key players in pre-World War II Germany.
In the Garden of Beasts was an interesting experience for me. Politics and diplomacy are not areas that interest me; when I read history, I either want the epic great deeds of the age or small, intimate slivers of individuals' lives. In the Garden of Beasts, with its vast cast of characters and complicated political workings, was intimidating to me. However, the book was well written and, for the most part, enjoyable.
Larson juxtaposes the complexity of the political situation in Germany with the intimate personal details of William and Martha Dodds' lives. I knew very little about Hitler's rise to power prior to reading this book -- basically, that he worked with the leader at the time and slowly gained more influence until eventually taking over. I didn't know anything about the other main players in the story. I didn't realize that the Gestapo and the SS were secret entities (shameful). I also didn't realize how complex a role the Soviet Union played in the whole debacle (more on this in my forthcoming review of Berlin 1961). In some ways, these details were overwhelming to me, because I could not remember who was who and who was in charge of what and why that was important. To be honest, Hitler only rarely enters the story; most of the time the book deals with the smaller figures around him that buoy him up to power, and the aftermath of some of the insane actions of the time -- beatings of American tourists not giving the Heil despite a law excusing them from it, brutality against Jews, Hitler's paranoid turning against trusted advisors, mass shootings. Despite my confusion with some of the people with whom I am unfamiliar, the overall effect is powerful.
I also was very interested in Dodd and Martha. Both unique and at times difficult personalities, viewing the story through the lens of their experiences made everything more meaningful and personal. Dodd occasionally blunders, not understanding why he is expected to live such a lavish lifestyle when all he wants to do is finish his history of the Old South. Martha tries to seduce every man in sight, forming relationships with many powerful men, including a Soviet spy who tries to get her to work for them and the head of the Gestapo. She also receives steady correspondence from Carl Sandburg. Not too shabby. At times, the Dodds sympathize with the Germans, agreeing with them about "the Jewish problem" -- something that seems shocking, but must be taken with the fact that the scope of Hitler's evil actions was not near to being yet understood. As the Dodds' time in Germany passes, they become increasingly more disillusioned with Germany, but the process is a lengthy one.
In the Garden of Beasts is interesting, well-written, and well-organized. At times, it grew weighty with detail, and at times I felt left out of the loop because I had never heard of Goring (and so many others whose names I am unable to recall) and wasn't sure if I had forgotten the part where his original role was explained or if it was assumed to be common knowledge. This book is well done, but must be approached with the knowledge that there is a steep learning curve, and prior information may be necessary.
Warnings: Some swearing, violence, tales of Martha's conquests (off the page)