Monday, December 26, 2011

255 (2011 #60). In the Garden of Beasts

by Erik Larson,
read by Stephen Hoye

This is Larson's most recent book, subtitled "Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin."  The American family is that of University of Chicago history professor William Edward Dodd, ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 as the Nazis came to power.

Larson typically has two storylines going on in his books, and this one follows that pattern by covering this time period from the viewpoints of both Dodd and his daughter, Martha Eccles Dodd, who was 24 when she arrived in Germany with her parents and brother.

Martha in particular was an interesting character.  Previously married and with affairs with Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe behind her, she was prepared to have a good time in Germany.  She had relationships with German officers and French and Russian diplomats. Initially impressed with the Nazis, she grew disillusioned with them, but was later considered to be a Communist sympathizer.

Dodd was not President Roosevelt's first choice for ambassador.  Dodd's lack of wealth and insistence on living within his salary, combined with his focus on time to work on his Old South history, resulted in his concerns about the Nazis being ignored back in the United States.

Larson's narrative nonfiction is based on Ambassador Dodd's Diary, edited by Martha and her brother Bill, and Martha's memoir, Through Embassy Eyes. According to Larson's afterword, "Neither work is wholly trustworthy; both must be treated with care and used only in conjunction with other, corroborative sources.  Martha's memoir...contains interesting omissions....However, documents among Martha's papers in the Library of Congress...include her detailed and never-published accounts...and correspondence" (page 370).

Similarly, there are questions whether Dodd's diary "is truly a diary as conventionally understood or rather a compendium of his writings pieced together in diary form by Martha and Bill....In my research at the Library of Congress, I found one leather-bound diary full of entries for the year 1932....[and] oblique references to a more comprehensive and confidential diary....after having read Martha's memoir, her Udet novel [Sowing the Wind, 1945], and her papers, and after reading thousands of pages of Ambassador Dodd's correspondence, telegrams, and reports, I can offer one of those intangible observations that comes only after long exposure to a given body of material, and that is that Dodd's published diary sounds like Dodd, feels authentic, and expresses sentiments that are in perfect accord with his letters to [President] Roosevelt, [then Secretary of State Cordell] Hull, and others" (page 371).

Stephen Hoye's reading is adequate.  I borrowed a print copy of the book from public library to see photos of Dodd and his family (there were a few).  The endpapers had maps in the back and front respectively of 1933 Berlin, and an enlargement of the Tiergarten (German for "animal garden" - or "garden of beasts") area,  which were quite helpful.  There was also a large (about 80 pages) "Sources and Acknowledgements" section that was not in the audiobook, including seven pages of commentary by Larson (part of which should have been in the audiobook), plus extensive notes, bibliography, and an index.

I liked this book least of the four Larson books I have read, but I would still recommend it, particularly to those interested in the rise of Nazism.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]


  1. An excellent read of the turmoils of one Ambassador and his family during the Third Reich's rise to power. Mr. Dodd was never seen as a good example by Washington standards but an intellectual with good diplomatic skills nonetheless. Dodd being from North Carolina was my main reason for reading and I was able to read of his stress being a Southern Gentleman farmer going through the spell of Hitler's Germany. The whole family is represented in this work and a grand description of a pious family amist the every extravgant Nazi Party.

  2. So true, Italia! Thank you for commenting!