Thursday, September 15, 2011

In The Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

2011; 365 pages.  Full Title : In the Garden of Beasts : Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  New Author? : No.  Genre :  Historical Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It's 1933.  William Dodd is a 60-something history professor who's not finding enough time to work on his magnum opus - a comprehensive history of the Old South.  He wants a different job, but where in the world would a man at his age find a cushy, well-paying job which will also allow him to work extensively on his pet side-project?

    Meanwhile, newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt needs someone to be ambassador to Germany.  But all the Foreign Office professionals are turning him down because no one wants to deal with Hitler and his psycho nut-jobs.  Where in the world will FDR find someone ambitous or naive enough to fill the post?

What's To Like...
    Dodd of course gets the job, and packs up his family (wife Mattie, and grown children Martha and Bill Jr.) and moves to Berlin.  It is a Beverly Hillbillies moment.  Dodd is a serious tightwad, and there will be no long, black Mercedes limo for him.  The family Chevrolet is good enough.  Quelle gauche!

    We follow Dodd, as his eyes slowly open to what is happening in Germany; as he struggles with powerful State Department back-biting; and as he comes to realize how demanding an ambassadorship is.  His book will not get finished.  Mattie and Bill Jr. soon fade from the spotlight, but major pages are devoted to Martha, who embraces the European social scene and goes to bed with just about every young stud she meets.

    As with all Erik Larson books, there is a second storyline.  Here it follows the Nazi terror tactics as Hitler tries to consolidate his power and expel the Jews.  This isn't easy, since his toadies (Himmler, Goring, Rohm, etc.) all loathe each other, and the German Army is loyal to the President (the aging Hindenburg), not to Adolph.

Kewlest New Word...
Propinquity  :  the state of being close to someone (either physically or in spirit); proximity.

    Papen was a protégé of President Hindenburg, who affectionately called him Franzchen, or Little Franz.  With Hindenburg in his camp, Papen and fellow intriguers had imagined they could control Hitler.  "I have Hindenburg's confidence," Papen once crowed.  "Within two months we wil have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he'll squeak."  It was possibly the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century.  As historian John Wheeler-Bennett put it, "Not until they had riveted the fetters upon their own wrists did they realize who indeed was captive and who captor."  (pg. 186)

    "At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk," (Dodd) wrote.  "A woman who may report on a neighbor for disloyalty and jeopardize his life, even cause his death, takes her big kindly-looking dog in the Tiergarten for a walk.  She talks to him and coddles him as she sits on a bench and he attends to the requirements of nature."  (pg. 336)

"Liebst du noch?"  (Are you still among the living?)  pg. 321
    In The Garden of Beasts is well-researched, to the tune of 60 pages of notes at the end.  Larson does this in all his books.  No one ever reads the notes.  So personally, I don't see why they couldn't be posted online somewhere, and save a few trees.

    Also, the subject matter isn't as exciting as in his other books.  William Dodd is objectively a dull person, and Martha's amorous antics get old quickly.  There are a couple instances of Nazi brutality sprinkled throughout, but they are mostly anecdotal.  At page 300 (out of 365), I was still waiting for some major excitement.

   It finally shows up, in the form of something called "The Night of the Long Knives", and the next 50 pages are riveting.  Still one would've preferred ay bit more Nazi thuggery and a bit less Dodd diplomacy.

    Larson does a masterful job with what he has.  The character studies of all the players are deep and detailed; and the gradual terrorization of the German populace will send shivers up your spine.  It's just that he has better stuff to work with in his other books.  It's kinda like giving Michelangelo a wad of Play-Doh and saying, "show me what you can do, big guy".  You know it'll be better than what you or I could make, but it just won't match what he can do with a slab of marble.  7½ Stars, only because Larson's past masterpieces shine brighter than this does.


Sverige said...

Great review, i think these stories need to be kept fresh in our minds --and if my memory serves me correctly-- despite the sensible words of Elie Weisel that no more imagery should be known in works of fiction. Altho this book it is not fiction, it seems to be untold tales which seem unreal that 1) They happened and 2) WE didn't know sooner. The time is always ripe to expose ppl condemning the innocent to deranged methods of control and dominance. Ron's comparison to Uganda was powerful!!

Hamilcar Barca said...

thanks for stopping by, Sverige.

i've always wondered how the German people could willingly allow themselves to be completely subjugated by the Nazi party. this book does a good job of explaining that.

and given that the Neo-Nazis in the world are trying to convince people that the Holocaust never happened, books like this are extremely important.