...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.