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Review: "In the Garden of Beasts," by Erik Larson


Having read all of Mr. Larson's earlier books I came to this piece with equal enthusiasm and anticipation. Although a fine work, I have to begin by stating that it did not live up to the high bar set by his earlier subjects. First, with the positives. Larson has combed through a vast archive of letters and documents to build a palpable history of Ambassador Dodd and his family in Berlin during the 1930's and the rise of Hitler. Despite having a working knowledge of this era, I was able to learn vast amounts of insightful material, especially about the difficulties that Dodd encountered at every turn. The portrait drawn of the growth of the Reich and the real temperaments and actions of a host of important men and women during that era never fails. The horror, panic, incrimination and fear that grew almost daily in Berlin of the day is real and engrossing. The amazing picture of a brilliant and beautiful European city falling into the wormhole of Nazi Germany is enticing and eminently readable. The reader has a much clearer understanding and feeling for a complicated scene that every sensible person somehow missed or simply could not believe was coming into existence. It is so easy with the hindsight of history to paint the Nazi hierarchy as the epitome of villains, demented sadists and hate mongers. Certainly, there is enough in this book to validate that claim. But through the use of anecdotal interviews, parties and the realities of the vast differences among Germans of the time the picture becomes more clouded and gives us a glimpse into the complexities that were taking place. If you are a history buff, especially of the era prior to World War II, this would be a good read. Now for some general criticism. Larson's earlier books were incredibly compelling stories. Because their central themes were much smaller in scope they followed a particular format. That is, they centered on an individual, most often a killer or criminal, followed that lead intensely and juxtaposed that person against a larger backdrop, e.g. the Exposition in 1880's Chicago, or the invention of radio waves. These books were fascinating and intense and gratifying reads. Moving to the Lusitania story "Thunderstruck" Larson took a step closer to straight history, but filled the pages with interesting histories of the people involved. He has tried to do much the same with "Beasts" but for some reason the main players are simply not as interesting. Is this a good read? Exceptionally so. Is it as readable as his earlier works. Not in my impression.