I was not expecting to become so engrossed. I admit I am a bit of a nut for wartime historical fiction, but In the Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is outside this range on two accounts: it is a non-fiction account of an American ambassador in Germany and it is set in the pre-war period of 1930s Berlin. Nervous about these elements outside of the go-to for WW2 fiction, these turned out to be fascinating and completely compelling for me. I would go so far as to say I devoured this and felt it was a real page turner. I have recommended it to my dad – something I do not do lightly. Starship Troopers was the last title we discussed at length, although I may have convinced him to try Ursula Leguin with my Left Hand of Darkness Cannonball review (http://www.pajiba.com/book_reviews/the-left-hand-of-darkness-by-ursula-k-leguin.php).
In the Garden of Beasts is not kind to the subject of its story. Erik Larson writes a compelling account of the ambassadorship of William E. Dodd and his family during their time in pre-WWII Germany as Hitler rises to power, but he does not pull any punches with regard to the astounding naiveté and ignorance with which they enter Berlin society during the rise of the Nazi party.
Dodd was considered a milquetoast of a man, quiet and unassuming, a lifelong academic from a poor family in rural North Carolina whose dream was to complete his A History of the Old South. His one ambition was to become an ambassador, and though he would have preferred Paris, he had studied as a graduate student at the University of Leipzig and spoke nearly flawless German, so when President Roosevelt couldn’t find any one else to take the job, Dodd was offered the post of Ambassador to Germany in 1934. Thinking this would be an easy posting with plenty of time for writing and research on his History, Dodd accepted.