Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Nonfiction Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Let's see...our copy of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson is hardcover, so it's been sitting on our bookcase since I gave it to my husband soon after its release in 2011. He read it right away, told me it was great, and moved it to my side of the TBR bookcase, and...eight years later, I finally read it! He was right. This engrossing true story of the American ambassador (and his family) assigned to Berlin in 1933 is fascinating and chilling.

In 1933, against advice from some in the State Department, the newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose William E. Dodd as the new ambassador to Germany. Dodd had no political experience at all; he was a mild-mannered history professor from University of Chicago. His greatest loves were his quiet farm in Virginia, not too far from where he grew up in North Carolina, and his work-in-progress and lifetime goal, a four-volume series called The Rise and Fall of the Old South. He had almost completed the first book when FDR called to ask him to take the position in Berlin. Dodd agreed and moved his family, including his wife, Mattie, and their adult children, Bill and Martha, across the ocean. At first, the family enjoyed the lovely city and its many entertainments. Dodd had lived in Germany as a young man and loved the country and its people. But they soon began to see the disturbing underside of the new Berlin, under Hitler's recent rise to power. There was one man in particular in the State Department who had been warning his colleagues of the terror growing there, but Dodd and most others thought he was exaggerating. After all, the Dodds socialized with members of the Nazi Party and the Third Reich and had them over for dinner. Martha, a young, vibrant journalist, even dated plenty of Reich men, including the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. Little by little, though, they began to see the truth of what was happening in Germany. Dodd's warnings to his colleagues went similarly unheeded, as the family continued to experience an odd mixture of fun and horror. As the year wore on, the horror became more prominent.

As always, Larson's talent for telling a real-life story in a compelling, fiction-like way shines through. He did extensive research, including many primary sources, like the Dodds' letters back and forth to friends, family, and the State Department. Knowing from history what is going to happen in Germany and the terror that is ahead for its citizens (and the world) adds tension and suspense, as the reader wonders how long it will take the poor Dodds to figure things out and what will have to happen for the rest of the world to finally take notice. In this way, it is a chilling book. It is also fascinating, to read about the details of what was going on behind the scenes with the Nazis way back in the early 30's, the conflicts between different factions, the personalities of the highest-ranking Nazis, and the steady progression toward what we know is coming later. As with all of Larson's books I've read, this one kept me rapt. I kept interrupting my husband's reading to share astonishing facts, even though he'd already read the book himself. It's just that kind of a book. We both also highly recommend Larson's Devil in the White City, which oddly combines the World's Fair of 1893 and a serial killer loose at the same time in Chicago in parallel narratives.

What's your favorite Erik Larson book?

365 pages, Crown

Listen to a sample of the audio book, narrated by Stephen Hoye, or download it from Audible. The sample is from the beginning of the book.

You can purchase In the Garden of Beasts from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order In the Garden of Beasts from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. Sold. I am adding this one to my TBR list. This is my era of interest and narrative nonfiction make it a must read for me.