In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and anAmerican Family in Hitler’s Berlin by ErikLarson Reviewed by Teri Davis Being a United States’ Ambassador to Germany obviously is an honor with tremendous expectations. Can anyone imagine what it would have been like to be in this position prior to World War II just when Adolf Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party? William E. Dodd was an unlikely choice for an ambassador appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His only qualifications were spending time in Germany twenty years previously and knowing history, but obviously notunderstanding it. Many wealthy and experienced politicians had turned it down so it was asurprise for a university professor to accept this. Dodd started in this position with the idea thatit would allow him time to write his book, Old South. He had no realistic expectations of hissituation nor how he was perceived by our politicians and the German leaders.To begin with, Dodd decided to live within the means of his salary for all entertaining andexpenditures. This would include the elaborate parties with the German leaders. Then heinsisted on transporting his old Chevrolet to Germany. With the Nazi leaders either having achauffeur or driving long flashy vehicles, this didn’t successfully maintain any dignity.Also with him came his wife, his adult son and daughter. His son planned to continue his studieswhile in Germany and to learn the language. His daughter, Martha, found this to be theopportunity for adventure. She divorced her husband who was a New York banker and partiedher way through the younger Nazi leadership developing a longtime relationship with the headof the Gestapo and a Soviet spy.There were numerous challenges for Ambassador Dodd at this time, especially with Americansin Berlin. When the Nazi’s marched past, everyone was expected to salute and to show respect.Those, even Americans, who did not, were frequently beaten. The situation was even moredifficult if the visitors were American and Jewish.Erik Larson is known for writing factual books that read like fiction. He continues to succeedwith In the Garden of Beasts. The other novels he has written are Thunderstruck, The Devil inthe White City, and Isaac’s Storm.Though factual, this novel is quickly read even with the footnotes which were enriching to readalong with each chapter. The information was extremely easy to understand and helped in
filling history prior to the war that is usually not considered but made the Nazi movement moreunderstandable. Also wonderfully written is the aspect of the global impact of the situationssurrounding the Ambassador and his family. Written as real people, the style was easy andsimilar to fiction which made the events realistic to the reader. Knowing the situation and theafter events, the reader realizes the danger and the impact of these decisions and situations.To read In the Garden of the Beasts is to truly transport yourself to another time and place thatfew of us have and will ever experience except through the eyes of Erik Larson.