Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

The story of a diplomat and his family in Nazi Germany

Erik Larson, the author of “In the Garden of Beasts” stands in a small group of non-fiction writers who realize that non-fiction does not have to be boring. Other writers in this small group include: Rebecca Skloot, Jon Krakauer and Sebastion Junger. “In the Garden of Beasts” is the true story of the American Ambassador to Germany and his family and their observations right before World War II.

Much of the focus of the book is on Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was described as both capricious and wanton. Martha viewed herself as something of a writer, and much of the book seems to have been taken from her observations written in both letters and in her journal.

Unfortunately, the Dodds and Martha in particular, were anti-semitic at the start of their trip in Germany. The family made friends quickly and interacted with many other high-ranking diplomats, but didn’t observe or comment too much initially on the transgressions against the Jews in Germany.

In one disturbing scene in “In the Garden of Beasts,” Martha had the opportunity to meet Adolph Hitler in person. He kissed her hand and she toyed with the idea of “never washing it” because of his fame and seemingly great popularity within Germany.

Martha was entranced more with the ex-pat lifestyle in Nazi Germany at the time; she had the opportunity to mingle with some highly ranked diplomats. Erik Larson didn’t go into tremendous detail about her sexual encounters, but did note that Martha Dodd had several affairs.

Martha’s brother and mother were there at the time, but weren’t mentioned nearly as often in the story; either their roles scintillating enough to maintain the story or Erik Larson didn’t have enough information about them.

To their credit, however, the Dodds did finally start to take notice of the atrocities in Germany. At first they heard the rumors and saw small incidents, but when some of their friends started to disappear, the Dodd family definitely did take notice and eventually became much more involved and much more communicative to Washington, DC about the horrifying incidents taking place in Germany at the time.

The lack of communication with Washington, DC struck me as strange, as did the strategy of trying to sway the opinion of Nazi Germany through the weak and uniformed diplomacy of Dodd, who did not even want the post to begin with.

Who should read this book? Anyone wanting an engaging story about World War II from a perspective not normally seen or told.