Hedy reviews “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson, 943.086 LA (also LARGE PRINT, CDBOOK)

For those of you who loved Larson’s “Devil in the White City” (364.1523 LA), “In the Garden of Beasts” will probably appeal to you too.  It’s an historical double biography about William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his daughter Martha.  “In the Garden of Beasts” is a rough translation of “Tiergarten”, the area of Berlin where most of the action takes place.

Larson said he’d just finished “Thunderstruck” (364.1523 LA)  and didn’t have an idea for another book when he decided he’d finally have time to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” by William Shirer (943.086 SH)–over 1,000 pages, no pictures.  He was fascinated and wanted to write something himself, so he’d have the excuse to do more research on that era.   So much had been written about the Third Reich already that he knew he’d have to come at it from another direction.  When he came across William Dodd and his daughter, he knew he’d found his subjects.  Dodd had studied in Germany years earlier and fell in love with the country.  When he returned in 1933, it wasn’t the same, and he warned the U.S. government time and time again that Hitler was dangerous and out of control.  But because Dodd was an unassuming, frugal person from the Midwest, he was looked down upon and by and large ignored.  His daughter, however, was a real charmer and Americans, Germans, and Russians were all infatuated with her.

Two things made me especially appreciate this book:

1)  There were several pages about the German author Hans Fallada whose novel “Every Man Dies Alone” (FIC FALL) is currently on my Top Ten Favorite Books list;

2) Larson included the story of Mildred Fish-Harnack who was from Wisconsin and married to a German who opposed Hitler.  They were both executed.  Fish-Harnack’s birthday, September 16, is a State School Observance Day in Wisconsin and, by law, all schools are required to teach her life story.  A documentary called “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story” has just been produced by Wisconsin Public TV.  There is a wealth of information on their webpage http://wpt.org/naziresistance/

Final Epigraph (on the page after the last page): “I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten—a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor, with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale.  In the morning light it was all as raw and rank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.”–Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit

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2 Responses to “Hedy reviews “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson”

  1. Jim Keenan says:

    Great review, Hedy, of a fascinating book.

  2. Judi says:

    This has been on my “books to read” list since it was published. Your review makes me think I should move it up to the top. I grew up in Wisconsin and have never heard of Mildred Fish-Harnack, so I don’t think all Wisconsin schools teach her life story!