In the grand scheme of things, it’s unsurprising that I’ve been interested to read In the Garden of Beasts. For one, it’s about Nazis (indirectly; it’s about the U.S. ambassador to Germany and his family, living in Berlin during Hitler’s ascent to power) and for two, it’s by Erik Larson, whose ability to turn nonfiction into compelling narrative I praised in my review of Devil in the White City. For three, the book was moved to the top of my list after my mom demanded I return it to her over Christmas (I borrowed it from her husband.) Because nothing puts my mom in the holiday spirit like Hitler.
Anywho, with Garden, Larson is as always (or at least, as before) meticulous with the details, and the book includes 449 end-notes and a 12-page bibliography, so you know the man spent some time on it (or reads books at the same speed as Short Circuit. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) The source material is woven fairly seamlessly into the text, though the fact that this was 70+ years ago, and involves primary players in Germany and America means there are a lot of quotes from letters. Which just made me think about how often people must have written letters back then, and how taxing and time-consuming that must have been, but how at the same time I suppose they didn’t have TV yet and how productive I could be if I didn’t have TV. Letters for all! Anyway, in terms of pacing, Garden is very much like Devil in the White City, which is to say it’s like reading a novel, except you have to periodically remind yourself that everything in it actually happened and Hitler was pretty much a piece of shit.
I’ll admit, I didn’t love In the Garden of Beasts quite as much as Devil in the White City. It feels like it was almost extra challenging for Larson to take on a subject like Nazi Germany, which has been documented in pretty much every media since forever (is there a Nazi Tumblr? There should be a Nazi Tumblr) and about which most people already have fully formed perceptions, complete with mental pictures and memories of the first time they sobbed while watching Schindler’s List. As a subject matter, this shit’s been done.
But Garden was still excellent. The majority of books and movies about Germany during Hitler’s rise to power tend to focus on the most grotesque of the atrocities (Fun fact: I learned on Jeopardy last week that grotesque comes from the Latin for “of a cave”, which makes sense because, who likes cave people?)—the attacks against Jews, the concentration camps, Hitler screaming at huge audiences while spittle flies out of his mouth. By contrast, In the Garden of Beasts is primarily set in the buildup to those times, when the country felt its impending doom, but actual incidents of violence were innocuous enough to be overlooked or explained away. If you’ve ever wondered why people in Germany, or the U.S., or in the world, didn’t step up sooner, this book goes a long way towards explaining (without justifying) the global reticence to starting shit with Hitler.
Bottom line: It’d be hard to write a boring book about Nazis, but it’s equally hard to write a unique one. Short of the Kardashian wedding, this has to be one of the most reported-upon topics of all time. Fortunately, Larson is up to the task, and In the Garden of Beasts bears that out. Even without the swastika-patterned backdrop, Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha are rather fascinating people: he, frugal, academic-minded and a stickler for details (used to send official memos complaining about the money wasted on excessively long telegrams); she, idealistic, a little ditzy, and just a touch slutty.
And just in case you’re still not convinced: While I originally read Devil in the White City because I heard tell Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing the serial killer, I have unintentionally read In the Garden of Beasts just as Tom Hanks says he might turn it into a movie. So, there you go! If you’re not going to read it for history, do it for the opportunity to eat movie popcorn.
TITLE: In the Garden of Beasts
AUTHOR: Erik Larson
PAGES: 375 (in hardcover, not counting end-notes/bibliography)
ALSO WROTE: The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm
SORTA LIKE: The Devil in the White City meets Valkyrie
FIRST LINE: “Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin.”