Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

After devouring The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s deep dive into the infamous serial killer who plagued Chicago at the time of the 1893 World Fair, I promptly bought another of the author’s titles at my local Barnes & Noble. Due to a series of life events (and overall lack of interest in reading over the past year) I only just recently finished the remaining 30 pages of In the Garden of Beasts after beginning it last summer.

Garden covers the four-year account of William E. Dodd, and his family, as he served as the American ambassador to Germany. The narrative was pieced together through a combination of public and governmental records as well as private family and friend correspondences. A fair chunk of the book focused on the questionable social life of Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha. She apparently was always on the cusp of influencing powerful men, but rarely ever made an actual impact for better or worse – except on her father’s already tepid reputation as a weak diplomat. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like In the Garden of Beasts, but also, it didn’t captivate me like The Devil in the White City did. I felt like I drudged through the storyline instead of flipping pages with heightened anticipation.

For the record, this wasn’t meant to be a comparative book review, but I do find it necessary to explain the difference in my tone from my review of Devil. In both cases, Larson picked very heavy, traumatic, sensational (in the worst sense of the word) eras in history to cover. But where Larson’s writing in Devil seemed to ingeniously weave together two incongruous narratives, the outlining of Garden never felt like it tied together the stories of a single family. I suppose that just affirms Ambassador Dodd’s inability to effectively unite people.

“I had no delusions about Hitler when I was appointed to my post in Berlin,” [Dodd] answered. “But I had at least hoped to find some decent people around Hitler. I am horrified to discover that the whole gang is nothing but a horde of criminals and cowards.”

In the Garden of Beasts (Broadway books, 2011) p. 150

In Garden, the author did make several major disclaimers in the introduction to explain that his purpose was not to make excuses for or try to reason the main subjects’ choices, but to lay out the facts as he unearthed them. But as I read I never felt like I developed any emotional connection with or cared about the Dodd family or other featured characters. Whereas the subjects in Devil were almost irrefutably-defined heroes, villains, or victims (namely the genius architect Daniel H. Burnham, the cunning killer H.H. Holmes and his casualties), the subjects in Garden all seemed to live in the grey marshes of communal bad decisions and the guilty shadows of hubris. It was hard to respect or fully disdain any of the main players given that none of them were described as inherently good or bad.

By the time I closed the cover, I was glad that Ambassador Dodd’s saga as the listless diplomat was over, but also kind of bummed to be an American – a distinct change from the typical sentiment most often dictated when considering America’s role in the latter events of World War II. To be sure, I had great teachers over the years who made sure that we didn’t overlook the travesties caused by American choices before, during and after the War. However, the overwhelming feeling is more often one of pride and joy that we saved the world through liberation and the facilitation of reconstruction and reparation plans.

The above feelings combined with the fact that Garden ends in 1940 with the looming threat of war was a bummer. I really wanted to enjoy this book, but I can’t leave a glowing recommendation. As is often the case in politics, identifying the “bad guys” in writing is completely relative to whom we might deem “good” and this title just didn’t live up to my expectations.

This book may be for you if you also like: nonfiction; pre- or post-war Germany; American politics; travel; stories about the Holocaust; ambassadors; international diplomacy; Erik Larson; Devil in the White City.


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