Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

The subtitle of Erik Larson's latest book is "love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin." This is not just any American family though. This is the true story, something Larson excels in is writing non-fiction that reads like fiction, of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd.

Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt after several other men turned down the position, Dodd was considered a fusty, old fashioned, tight fisted man, an academic from Chicago totally unsuited to the job. His penury, which today would be considered an admirable quality, made him the laughing stock of his staff and of the other dignitaries he interacted with. He actually walked to meetings rather than luxuriate in a chauffeur driven vehicle! He didn't have enough servants and he tried to live in Berlin on the ambassador's salary, about $3000 a year at the time.

I have to tell you, I must be the only person in the world who didn't think that Larson's big hit, Devil in the White City, an ugly recounting of a serial killer who stalked young women in Chicago while making a fortune from the building of the World's Fair, was a great read. What every book discussion group in creation saw in that book to talk about, I have no idea. But this one? Oh yeah!

I personally think that this book is by far the more interesting and sophisticated. It offers a great way to learn your history without falling asleep. It brings the run up to World War II alive to the reader through the eyes of a family that initially didn't believe there was anything to worry about as Hitler rose in prominence.
But gradually, through immersion in the lives of the German people, the socialites, the politicians, and the various branches of the police, Ambassador Dodd and his family began to sense with growing alarm the true evil that was burgeoning in their beloved Germany.

Larson has done a load of research, often quoting from diaries and letters of the many players who populate his book. I found Dodd's daughter Martha to be the most fascinating woman I've read about in forever. You couldn't make this up! The old saying "truth is stranger than fiction" certainly applies here.

 The women in the book discussion I attended were non-plussed by what they perceived to be her indiscriminate sexual behavior. It's all they could focus on. What I loved watching was her talent at drawing so many different men and women into her orbit and mesmerizing all of them at the same time. A newspaper editor in Chicago, she obviously had the brains and looks to pull it off and the sense of freedom that being in a foreign country often proffers.

Hardly the swinging '60's, this was 1933 -35, Martha deftly juggled a former husband in the states with lovers from both the Russian embassy and the Nazi SS at the same time and managed to do it all under the ever watchful eyes of the of the government. She attracted all the writers and artists of the day to her home and participated in various discussion groups and socials where politics and the future of Germany were dissected and hashed over.

And it's through Martha, the most dazzled initially by Hitler's "new" Germany, that Larson proves how easily people could fool themselves into believing that the attacks on American Jews in Berlin were not truly racially motivated and that the whisperings of attempts to create an Aryan race were not really possible. Until, that is, the evidence becomes more obvious, the sounds of the jackboots more ominous, and the hateful speeches louder.

I've been listening to Larson's book on my ipod. It's been a boon to my health as I want to walk longer and farther even though I know the ending. I feel like Larson has allowed me to be a fly on the wall at the backdoor machinations of the politicians who jockey for position, each with his own agenda, our lives in their hands as they decide to go to war. Not much has changed.

I'm thrilled to tell you that Erik Larson will be attending the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in the Spring - good going Jess! Put it on your calendar. The man is a talent to be reckoned with.


Linda said...

Although I haven't read the new title, I just wanted to go on record that I totally agree with you on "Devil in the White City." It was a total yawn, although some of the details were interesting. I can't imagine what groups discussed, unless it was nostalgia of ol' Chicago.

Sallyb said...

Hi Linda, Thanks for that. I too was wondering what on earth there was to discuss in Devil...Being history buffs, this new book by Larson has so much more meat for us.