Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (4/5)

12 Dec

For those of you who follow WWW Wednesday, you know I’ve been reading this book for a long time. I read it as an ebook so that’s not unusual for me. I always keep an ebook on my phone to fill in those moments waiting for the doctor or while eating lunch alone at work or other little moments I’d rather fill with a book than with checking Facebook. I had a physical copy of this book but I lent it to a coworker who was fired before he could return it to me. I still have the dust jacket but I never got a chance to read it before I lent it to him. Reading the ebook makes me feel like I can finally stop worrying about where that book is.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

Other books by this author:

The Devil in the White City
Dead Wake

Summary from Goodreads:

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the New Germany, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Goring and the expectedly charming—yet wholly sinister—Goebbels. In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity.

Wow, it took me eight months to read this! I still remember a lot of the details, though. It was really interesting to hear about Hitler’s rise to power through the Dodd’s eyes, especially Martha. Because of her memoirs, her voice was very strong and Larson used it a lot to tell the story. Dodd himself was much duller than his daughter and she was a good way to keep the book’s pace going. I liked all of the officers he included and I liked the struggle within the German government. I would frequently forget Dodd had a son and I think that’s a fault of the book but other than that, it was really well written.

Larson did a great job of bringing these people to life. Creating someone I could picture meeting from his or her diaries can’t be easy but Larson did it. He even made Hitler seem approachable in the scenes where he appeared. He did an incredible job with the setting and showing how fearful the characters were. Looking back, we’d like to think everyone would have taken the warning signs of the Nazi purpose seriously but it’s understandable that not everyone would have taken up arms against Germany, especially considering the great debt they owed the US. I thought Larson did a good job of explaining why people reacted the way they did to the Nazis.

Martha was fun to read about. Her plot often took us away from Berlin and away from the Nazis but at the same time, it added to my enjoyment of the story so much that I’m inclined to forgive it. Her love affairs were with prominent German and Russian men which gave her an air of importance. I thought it was funny that the Russian government considered her for spy work. I don’t think she cared enough about what her father was doing to be of much use to the government.

Dodd’s struggle to be taken seriously was something that spoke to me. I think many people could relate. Sometimes, due to age, gender, background, or another reason, a person is disregarded out of hand as not knowledgeable. Messersmith didn’t help Dodd gain any credibility in his office and many others seemed to work against him and not to recognize that he was competent. Because he was different from previous ambassadors, he was branded as incompetent and as much as he fought for legitimacy, he never got it. Here’s the difference between non-fiction and fiction. Sometimes real people never achieve their goals.

As I said, I enjoyed Martha’s story. I especially liked her on-and-off relationship with Boris. She was a very emotional person and by that I mean she followed her ever-changing emotions rather than think with her head. She divorced her husband without a care in the world it seemed. However, later in life, she struck up a romance with him again. If she was really thinking of him after their divorce is anyone’s guess. The men in the German army and government she dated could have landed her in serious trouble but she didn’t seem to care and I have a guess that if she could, she would have gone on a date with Hitler himself in a heartbeat. She was fun to follow and made a very serious topic more lighthearted.

The beginning of the book, describing how Dodd was selected bothered me. It was necessary, don’t get me wrong, but it started me off on the wrong foot with Dodd. Like his dissenters, I didn’t think he was a good choice and I thought there were men better qualified who should have been considered. In a book where Dodd is the hero, so to speak, I didn’t want to fight for him because I knew how much of an outsider he was and how far a shot he had of being successful.

This book is very relevant today. I’m going to try not to get political here but it will be hard. When Hitler rose to power, no one thought that he would end up the leader of the Holocaust. People saw him as someone who could save their country from debt and restore it to its former glory. To any American or well-informed world citizen, this should sound familiar. The Dodds saw the warning signs of what Hitler was doing. If there are warning signs here in America, if we’re headed down the same road, who will see them? And will that person be taken seriously enough to do something before it’s too late. I’d like to think that with the free media in the United States, those who know something will find a platform to say something.

Writer’s Takeaway: One thing I’ve been focusing on lately in my book is subplots. It’s hard to keep a subplot running the entire length of a novel and takes a lot of planning to make it work. I think of Martha’s story like a subplot. The main focus of the book is Dodd and his inability to get anything done in a Berlin that is so different from the Germany he knows and loves. Keeping that the focus of the book while showing Martha’s journey during their time in Berlin shows great skill at planning and executing his subplots.

A good read. My length of reading should be no reflection on the quality of this book. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson- A Book Recommendation | Rabbi John Rosove’s Blog
In the Garden of Beasts : Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin | Tony’s Book World
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson | The Critiquing Chemist


5 Responses to “Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (4/5)”

  1. poseidons99 December 13, 2016 at 4:59 PM #

    I’m not sure that I could remember details from the beginning if I would be reading a book that long


    • Sam December 14, 2016 at 5:56 PM #

      Haha, there are a few things that stuck out to me. I probably don’t remember a lot of the details but I remembered the characters and enough about them for them to be distinct in my mind. Happy reading!


  2. Levi November 16, 2017 at 7:44 PM #

    Nice review! This is such an interesting and engaging book. So relevant.


    • Sam November 16, 2017 at 9:44 PM #

      Glad you enjoyed it as well. I wonder if there will be a sequel of sorts. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person


  1. Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (3/5) | Taking on a World of Words - April 4, 2019

    […] Dead Wake (4/5) In the Garden of Beasts (4/5) […]


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