Erik Larson, author of the nonfiction bestsellers The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm, believes he has the “tiniest office in the world.” He’s never actually measured it, he admits. But he says the teeny room—a sort of foyer to the master bedroom’s closet—once served as the makeup room for a previous owner who was a prominent local newscaster.
“It is very small, but it’s cozy,” Larson says during a call to the home in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that he shares with his wife, Dr. Christine Gleason, who heads the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and their three daughters. “It’s probably the best office I’ve ever had.”
“No one really studies the very first year of Hitler’s rule. This is about the first dark warnings on the horizon."
One of its saving graces, Larson says, is that “a good chunk of it has windows. I’ve got what you call territorial views to the north. I see a hilltop, then a valley, then the next hilltop and the next hilltop, then a little lake. It’s very, very nice.”
And that captivating perspective—along with his “addiction to tennis”—seems to have provided at least a partial antidote to the gloom Larson experienced while researching and writing his riveting new book about the first year of Nazi rule, In the Garden of Beasts.
“When you get immersed in this era there’s something so repulsive about it that it can really drag you down,” Larson explains. “No one really studies the very first year of Hitler’s rule. This is about the first dark warnings on the horizon.
“What I found was that when you’re writing a book like this, in territory that has been pretty heavily mined in other ways, you have to read the basics. And there are a lot of basics to read. You just have to read and read and read. That’s what starts to infect you,” he says. “It’s the accumulation of these little bits and pieces of horror. It began to drag me down. And you feel this immense frustration: Why didn’t anybody do anything?”
That is one of the needling moral questions that haunts a reader throughout In the Garden of Beasts. To bring that and other questions vividly to life, Larson presents the experiences of an American family who were there and witnessed the almost-overnight changes in Germany. Charles E. Dodd, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to be U.S. ambassador to Germany, arrived in Berlin in 1933 with his wife, his son and his daughter Martha.
“Dodd and his daughter were probably ideal characters to follow because they came from very different perspectives,” Larson says. “Martha’s life in Berlin really does follow an almost novelistic arc. She begins utterly enthralled with the Nazis, becomes less so, and is finally so disgusted that she goes over—as many did—to seeing the salvation of the world in Communism. She became a very mediocre, more or less useless agent, and it destroyed her life.”
Martha is, frankly, a piece of work. She has affairs with highly placed Germans and a long-term affair with a Russian agent. She is out and about provoking grumbling, if not consternation, among consular staff. How did this not exasperate her rather straight-laced father?
“My sense is that this is a time when people gave their children a lot more independence at a younger age,” Larson says. “I’m a father of three daughters [they are 22, 20 and 17 years old] and we’re close, but I can’t pretend, at this moment, to know what goes on in their REAL lives. They could be dancing on a table in a bar right now. I think there is a sort of wishful blindness that all fathers engage in.”
Ambassador Dodd, on the other hand, is an almost Mr. Smith Goes to Washington character. A history professor with a dry sense of humor and a strong belief in Jeffersonian principles, he was friends with Carl Sandburg and President Woodrow Wilson. He shipped his unprepossessing Chevy to Berlin, raising eyebrows among both scornful U.S. State Department elites and the Nazi leadership, which prized symbols of wealth and brute power. Many in the foreign service thought he was out of his depth.
“To his credit I actually think he did exactly what he should have done in that era,” Larson says. “He wasn’t kowtowing to the Nazis. He had his own prejudices about the Jews and so forth, but they were sort of an ambient background prejudice, they weren’t going to get in his way. I think in some weird way he was the right man, in that place at the right time, because he drew a line, a moral line. Especially after the events of June 30, 1934, he reacted appr[Wed Aug 27 17:05:33 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. opriately, with horror. If the world had done the same thing, who knows how things would have turned out. The conventional wisdom is to criticize him. But there are those who refer to him as Cassandra, because he knew before everyone else what was happening. I think that’s accurate.”
Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
In Larson’s telling, what happens in Berlin unfolds in chilling detail. “Getting the detail right is a very important part of my mission,” Larson says. “I want to present, to the extent I can, what something smelled like, what the weather was like.”
Yet despite his love of discovering historical detail, Larson doesn’t think of himself as a historian. “Partly that’s because there are multiple layers of dust that accumulate in one’s mind when one says the word historian,” he says, laughing. “I think of myself more as an animator of history. Now I’m not talking at all about making stuff up. I mean finding enough details to put into the narrative that readers will connect the dots and the story will come alive. So my goal is to bring the past alive and to create a historical experience.
“Ideally, I want somebody to jump into the book at the beginning and in one night or two or three or four read all the way through it and at the end come out of that book feeling as though they had experienced a past time in almost a physical way,” Larson says.
By that measure in particular, In the Garden of Beasts is a resounding success. It will keep you up late at night, turning the pages.
A sometimes improbable but nevertheless true tale of diplomacy and intrigue by bestselling author Larson (Thunderstruck, 2006, etc.).
William E. Dodd, the unlikely hero of the piece, was a historian at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, tenured and unhappy, increasingly convinced that he was cut out for greater things than proctoring exams. Franklin Roosevelt, then in his second year in office, was meanwhile having trouble filling the ambassadorship in Berlin, where the paramilitary forces of Hitler's newly installed regime were in the habit of beating up Americans—and, it seems, American doctors in particular, one for the offense of not giving the Nazi salute when an SS parade passed by. Dodd was offered the job, and he accepted; as Larson writes, "Dodd wanted a sinecure...this despite his recognition that serving as a diplomat was not something to which his character was well suited." It truly was not, but Dodd did yeomanlike work, pressing for American interests while letting it be known that he did not think much of the blustering Nazis—even as, the author writes, he seems to have been somewhat blind to the intensity of anti-Semitism and was casually anti-Semitic himself. More interesting than the scholarly Dodd, whom the Nazis thought of as a musty old man, was his daughter Martha, a beauty of readily apparent sexual appetite, eagerly courted by Nazis and communists alike. The intrigues in which she was caught up give Larson's tale, already suspenseful, the feel of a John le CarrÃÂ© novel. The only real demerit is that the book goes on a touch too long, though it gives a detailed portrait of a time when the Nazi regime was solidifying into the evil monolith that would go to war with the world only five years later.
An excellent study, taking a tiny instant of modern history and giving it specific weight, depth and meaning.
ÃÂCopyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Best-selling author Larson (The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America) turns his considerable literary nonfiction skills to the experiences of U.S. ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family in Berlin in the early years of Hitler's rule. Dodd had been teaching history at the University of Chicago when he was summoned by FDR to the German ambassadorship. Larson, using lots of archival as well as secondary-source research, focuses on Dodd's first year in Berlin and, using Dodd's diary, chillingly portrays the terror and oppression that slowly settled over Germany in 1933. Dodd quickly realized the Nazis' evil intentions; his daughter Martha, in her mid-20s, was initially smitten by the courteous SS soldiers surrounding her family, but over time she, too, became disenchanted with the brutality of the regime. Along the way Larson provides portraits based on primary-source impressions of Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler himself. He also traces the Dodds' lives after their time in Germany. VERDICT Larson captures the nuances of this terrible period. This is a grim read but a necessary one for the present generation. Those who wish to study Dodd further can read Robert Dallek's Democrat & Diplomat.--Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames[Page 94]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City. He surveys Berlin, circa 1933-1934, from the perspective of two American naïfs: Roosevelt's ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, an academic historian and Jeffersonian liberal who hoped Nazism would de-fang itself (he urged Hitler to adopt America's milder conventions of anti-Jewish discrimination), and Dodd's daughter Martha, a sexual free spirit who loved Nazism's vigor and ebullience. At first dazzled by the glamorous world of the Nazi ruling elite, they soon started noticing signs of its true nature: the beatings meted out to Americans who failed to salute passing storm troopers; the oppressive surveillance; the incessant propaganda; the intimidation and persecution of friends; the fanaticism lurking beneath the surface charm of its officialdom. Although the narrative sometimes bogs down in Dodd's wranglings with the State Department and Martha's soap opera, Larson offers a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery. Photos. (May)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC