I’ve been reading furiously (furiously, I tell you!) this year, but between school, work, and motherhood, sitting down and actually writing reviews has proven pretty difficult. So over the next few days, I’ll be posting much more often in an effort to complete this year’s Cannonball Read!
In the Garden of Beasts is the true story of the American ambassador to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. William E. Dodd is a college professor at the University of Chicago. A quiet, Jeffersonian Democrat (and friend to Woodrow Wilson), his greatest wish is to finish his multi-volume history of the Old South. Plucked from his post, he moves his family: wife, son Bill and daughter Martha – to Berlin in the spring of 1933.
This is as much Martha’s story as it is Dodd’s. A wild young woman fleeing a bad marriage, she has literary aspirations but not much focus. She takes to the glittering Nazi social scene, and embarks on an energetic series of affairs. Her lovers are both high-ranking Nazis and Communist agents, and her behavior threatens Dodd’s standing.
Dodd himself is an outsider to the diplomatic corps. Dubbed the “Pretty Good Club”, they consist mostly of wealthy Ivy League graduates. Dodd is determined to live frugally, and even drives his own American-made car around town. This difference, and his unwillingness to “play along”, will make his job much harder in the years to come. The US government at this time is more concerned with Germany’s debt (and acquiring repayment) than with any human rights violations. Dodd is sent to Berlin with this goal in mind. As he and his family become witnesses to Hitler’s brutal rise and consolidation of power, his focus changes. Convincing Washington to act, however, proves difficult.
In the Garden of Beasts is an interesting, frustrating and ultimately sad read. Interesting, because Larson has the ability to put the reader right there in the action. Frustrating, because we can’t help but become angry at the inaction of the diplomatic community. Sad, of course, because we know what comes after. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I recommend this book.