"In the Garden of Beasts" is an engaging tour through the lives of the American ambassador to Germany and his family during the early years of the Third Reich.
Erik Larson, the author, is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. He is more known as the author of "The Devil in the White City" which won the 2004 Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category.
The nonfiction book in its entirety is of a somber and menacing atmosphere, as attested in the author's choice of chapter titles such as "Lucifer's Run", "Premonition", and "Gardens in the Dark", inter alia. Such choice of titles reveals the reality that almost everyone holding political office in the diplomatic community were under the illusion that the Nazi regime would soon be toppled or even bow down due to public pressure.
It is interesting to note how the Dodd family was said to have been enamoured with the Third Reich Germany before realizing that beneath all those facades, there is an underlying darkness waiting to surface.
The ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha found some Nazi party members, despite their evil political stances, to be "quite human" in their daily activities. Minister Hermann Goering, for example, was described as greedy and vain, while the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler himself, though stubborn when debating politics, is found to be very gentlemanly towards women. That side of Hitler is what Martha recounted after one of her rare encounters with him. There were even rumours of blossoming romance between Martha Dodd and Hitler himself (a rumour she was quite happy to hear), though eventually nothing came out of it.
Several excerpts were also devoted on how the ambassadorial residence of Dodd in the Tiergarten (lit. "Garden of Beast" in German) district of Berlin was able to provide modest yet safe haven for speaking out freely against the portending evils of the Third Reich. It is as if in the entire country of Germany, his residence alone was the only place where people can speak freely and yet remain totally immune from reprisal attacks by the Nazis.
Even the then-President Roosevelt admitted how vital Dodd's role was in safeguarding democracy on the very last years before U.S. and the Third Reich went into war. After the ambassador's demise in 1940, President made a succinct statement that in the end Mr Dodd "proved to be...a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness" (as found in page 356).
My main critique of the book would be the absence of any mentions of the Reich war minister Albert Speer, who had a considerably imminent presence during the pre-war diplomacy. The book also focuses too much on the lives and scandals of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha, while the mentions of son Bill Jr. Dodd were mostly found in the last chapter.
Another critique was on the ending of the book. Albeit satisfactory, the conclusion fell quite flat as the author seemed to rush through the rest of the lives of Martha and Bill Jr. within only several pages... It makes us readers feel that there is more to the story yet to be explored.
However, overall "In the Garden of Beasts" is perhaps one of the best books ever written on the topic of US-Germany diplomacy during the pre-WWII era. I present kudos to Erik Larson for penning such a magnificent book.
Verdict: 9 out of 10 stars