Books: Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts”

I’m one of the few readers on earth who didn’t finish Erik Larson’s 2004 mega-hit, “Devil in the White City.” I had researched and written about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago — the White City — so those chapters bored me. The serial killer chapters scared me. I couldn’t read it!

Now Larson has put out “In the Garden of Beasts,” a widely praised nonfiction account of an American ambassador and his family posted to Berlin in 1933, as the Nazis come to power. Its first pages pulled me in. William E. Dodd is chairman of the history department at University of Chicago. An aging scholar, what Dodd wants most is to finish his multi-volume history of the South and retire to his Virginia farm. A call from Washington changes his life.

Off to Berlin with him is wife Mattie and their two adult children Martha, 24 and Bill, 28. (Endearingly frugal, Dodd ships their Chevrolet.) Recently divorced, Martha’s affairs on both sides of the pond cause even a modern gal to blush. Strangely, Martha hardly comes to life, even though we’re let in on her teas and parties, her lakeside and late night outings.

I’d like to say this is a thrilling read. It’s not. It is well written, and sobering. There’s the drip drip drip of Nazi aggression coupled with Dodd’s well-meaning but ineffective diplomacy. He’s a decent man in a magnificent country headed by murderous statesmen. Dodd gives speeches, he brings warnings to high places. No one listens.

Is this a time and place worth revisiting?

Dodd is dull but admirable. I pined with him as he ached to spend time on his farm, and worried with him that he’d die before finishing his “Old South” manuscript. Berlin comes to life, but the Dodd family barely registers. (Indeed, I was more concerned for the Jewish family who rented the Dodds their mansion, then hid in its attic.) The Nazis and their brutal rise to power overwhelms this story.

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