Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

It has been many, many years since I read Erik Larson's fine book, The Devil in the White City, a remarkable retelling of some scary events in Chicago at the turn of the century.  Knowing this author does a fantastic job of bringing history to life, I was eager to see how I would like his tale of an American family in Hitler's Berlin (this was a book club selection). I was a bit worried about the length, because it seemed like a large book, but in reality it came in at less than four hundred pages, so not too bad to get through (and the writing propels you along very well, just like in the Chicago story).  Both books take on disturbing scenarios and dip the reader down into a world of turmoil and terror.  I can't agree with the New York Times assertion, "By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history." If I had to rank them, The Devil in the White City would win out over In the Garden of Beasts.  I found it to be a more gripping tale.

In this book, Larson follows the lives of the William Dodd family when Dodd accepts a position as the American Ambassador in Berlin.  The patriarch is an intellectual man, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, whose greatest desire is to complete a book of history on the Old South (he has been working on this for years without making much progress).  Mrs. Martha "Mattie" Dodd, ambitious on his behalf, urges him to take the position.  Their two grown children (in their early twenties), William Jr. and Martha, decide to accompany them and move to Germany as well.  (Never before have I encountered a couple who have named their two children after their own names - ha!) This sets the stage for a tale of adjustment and difficulty as this American family live out their lives in the setting of Hitler's Berlin.

Sadly, I'm at a loss for words to describe my experience with this book.  Wallowing in the tensions of Germany in those volatile years made for somewhat disturbing reading.  Indeed, the author himself says that researching this book really pulled him down due to the oppression of the period.  As many others have observed, Larson has a knack for making history read like a novel.  He does a fine job of reeling the reader in and placing them squarely in the setting of Berlin during a time of great change and difficulty.  The only sentence which stuck with me throughout, and pretty much summed up the key personalities of the era, was this one: "There is nobody among the officials of the National Socialist party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement."  It was that kind of world, filled with that kind of people.  What I find truly terrifying is the thought that, due to man's hubris and the common man's vulnerability, we could easily repeat this bad spell of history.

I will be interested to see where our discussion goes as we follow-up on this book club selection.  We seem to be stuck in a WWII mode, after reading The Book Thief last month and next month moving on to Unbroken.  I think I'll be happy to get to November, when we will discuss The Story of Beautiful Girl.

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