...by far [Larson’s] best and most enthralling work of novelistic history … In the Garden of Beasts has the clarity of purpose to see the Germany of 1933 through the eyes of this uniquely well-positioned American family...There has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds, characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises … Mr. Larson makes every aspect of the Dodds’ domestic lives reflect the larger changes around them. When looking for a home in Berlin, he writes, the Dodds found many good prospects, ‘though at first they failed to ask themselves why so many grand old mansions were available for lease so fully and luxuriously furnished’ … The Dodds’ story is rich with incident, populated by fascinating secondary characters, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd’s mission.
Had Dodd gone to Berlin by himself, his reports of events, his diary entries, his quarrels with the State Department, his conversations with Roosevelt would be source material for specialists. But the general reader is in luck on two counts: First, Dodd took his family to Berlin, including his young, beautiful and sexually adventurous daughter, Martha; second, the book that recounts this story, In the Garden of Beasts, is by Erik Larson … The story of prewar Germany, of the Jews, of book burnings, of the Reichstag trial, of the Night of the Long Knives, of the Nuremberg rally, of the unfolding disaster is old news. But Larson has connected the dots to make a fresh picture of these terrible events.
In these lives, Erik Larson finds a terrific storytelling vehicle, as William E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha, are initially taken with Adolf Hitler and his reinvigoration of Germany, and then slowly come to realize that nothing would stop Hitler from waging war and seeking to wipe out Europe's Jews … Some of the liaisons were particularly risky for a diplomat's daughter. But Martha Dodd's romances gave Larson and his readers — thanks to the considerable written record she leaves behind — a more intimate portrait of 1930s Berlin than her father apparently experienced … Little by little, the Dodds' view changed. Brutal attacks on visiting Americans by Hitler's storm troopers, the growing persecution of Jews, and finally the frightening June 1934 purge, known as the Night of the Long Knives, in which Hitler had hundreds of government officials murdered, awakened them.
In the Garden of Beasts at times seems derivative of a 1940 memoir, Through Embassy Eyes, by Martha Dodd, one of the main characters of his tale. Much of the material is the same, but we can forgive that because Larson fills in everything that Dodd herself felt obliged to leave out: It’s not every U.S. ambassador’s daughter who becomes a spy for the Soviet Union. We can also forgive Larson because his book reads like an elegant thriller — and certainly better than the elegant thriller, Sowing the Wind, that Dodd wrote. I found Larson’s book to be utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It is — and marvelous stuff. You really couldn’t invent it in a novel because no one would believe you.
Think Carrie Bradshaw in Berlin. Yet rather than trivializing the subject, this decision makes Garden the kind of book that brings history alive to readers … Unlike her father, Martha at 24 was dazzled at first by the Nazis, the sense of national purpose, the glamour of Berlin and the thrill of meeting Hitler in person … The entertaining drama of Martha's personal life contrasts what what she witnessed before the family returned to the USA in 1937. Through this appealing but ordinary woman, we see the paranoia, hear the fevered rhetoric and witness attacks on Berlin's Jews. Most of all, Larson captures how Martha, most Germans and the rest of world couldn't believe what was happening until it was too late.
...electrifying reading, with proximate doom at stake, fascinating because we parse crucial events we know generally, by how they affect our new book friends. We hang out with the Family Dodd — the academic, tepid, fussy, frugal, austere, passively anti-Semitic ambassador, and most especially, his volatile, steamy, intriguing daughter, who arrives in Berlin encumbered by a hasty marriage, recalling an affair with poet Carl Sandburg, and heading, in the ensuing hundreds of pages, for flings with a high SS officer and with a mushball married Soviet spy whose moves were prescripted in Moscow … Larson takes us there, numbed and entranced, not, this time, merely in pursuit of whodunit, but in pursuit of the anatomy of tyranny. It’s a bigger book than his other good books, and a crucial anatomy for us to comprehend.
With this implausibly rich cast of characters, Larson guides the reader through the dramatic early years of the Third Reich, a time when the true horrors of Nazism were only slowly becoming apparent. Using Dodd’s papers and diaries, he skilfully conveys the complex climate of the time: the unnerving thrill of upheaval and revolution, the all-pervading fear of Nazi violence, and the stubborn hope that decency might once again prevail … Larson tells the story of the Dodds – père et fille – with consummate ease, evoking sympathy for the father and irritation with the daughter in equal measure. Though he naturally brings his journalistic skills to the fore, he never seems to lose his credibility or authority as a historian.
Drawing on letters and government accounts, Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror during the first year of Dodd’s ambassadorship. Martha flirts and gossips with Nazi power brokers, including the head of the Gestapo, as well as foreign correspondents and a Russian spy. When she meets Hitler, he kisses her hand … Larson effectively juxtaposes political machinations and persecutions with more quotidian events. Even amid tense and scary times, people went to dinner, danced, fled or stayed, fought, and loved. As Hitler launched the Night of the Long Knives purge – a series of cold-blooded murders carried out under the false claim of an imminent coup – Martha and a boyfriend set out for a romantic lakeside picnic, oblivious to the 500 to 1,000 deaths carried out at Hitler’s orders.
Erik Larson's latest work, In the Garden of Beasts, revisits these chilling times, from Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 to the orgiastic climax of killings in the Night of the Long Knives. But he crafts his narrative through the eyes of America's ambassador, a history professor from Chicago, and his rather easy-virtued daughter, Martha, whose amorous encounters introduce us to a cadre of kooks, including a love-sick Soviet spy and the inadequately sadistic Gestapo chief … For all the narrative skill with which the author retells this grim tale, the book contains some frustrating dead ends. Larson peeks into a cauldron of brewing questions, yet backs away without letting us look inside. Why did it take Ambassador Dodd and his daughter so long to see the Nazi government for the ruthless regime it was?
The Dodds are far from naive, but they arrive wanting to give the rise of German nationalism the benefit of the doubt. Many prominent Americans and Europeans admire Hitler. Others are fearful, but the political sophisticates are convinced that the Little Corporal and his Brown Shirts are so crude and violent that they'll soon be voted out of office … Larson's fastidious scholarship provides the appropriate gravity to this subject. But his psychological perception and empathic imagination lend flesh to the documents, music to the ballrooms. He gives a throbbing pulse to the foolish and the wise, the malignant and the kind.
As Larson portrays him, Dodd was an academic and a ‘Jeffersonian liberal,’ a man of considerable integrity, who was clear-sighted in his understanding of Nazism and its goals, and prescient about its eventual militarist aggression … Casually anti-Semitic themselves, these men—in Larson’s thoroughly persuasive account—were more concerned with matters of wealth and social status than with Hitler’s increasingly repressive policies and actions. Their seemingly cavalier and laissez-faire attitudes allowed the Nazis to promulgate their hatred and advance their agenda virtually unrestrained by the international code of diplomatic norms … The terrible conclusion that we reach, in reading In the Garden of Beasts, is that, given vigilance, given honesty and integrity and sound judgment on the part of many, both within and outside Germany during those early years, Hitler could—and should—have been halted in his tracks.
In spite of Larson’s best efforts, Dodd and Martha don’t make particularly compelling protagonists. Both seem hopelessly naïve, with Martha’s anti-Semitism leading her to flirt with Nazism while Dodd repeatedly expresses his belief that Hitler sincerely wants peace and is working to rein in the brutality unleashed by his followers. Larson’s attempts to seize on Dodd’s few moments of import feel exaggerated … The book is at its best when it shifts its focus off the Dodds to the people who surrounded them during their time in Berlin. Larson provides surprisingly intimate portrayals of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Röhm, and other Nazi figures, and striking descriptions of the creeping paranoia that spread through all spheres of German society.
More interesting than the scholarly Dodd, whom the Nazis thought of as a musty old man, was his daughter Martha, a beauty of readily apparent sexual appetite, eagerly courted by Nazis and communists alike. The intrigues in which she was caught up give Larson’s tale, already suspenseful, the feel of a John le Carré novel … An excellent study, taking a tiny instant of modern history and giving it specific weight, depth and meaning.