In the Garden of the Beasts, by Erik Larson (Hardcover, 2011)|
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Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book has a good writing style, but suffers from "where's the beef?"
syndrome. While the book is enjoyable from a reading standpoint, it left me
disappointed due to its (mis)focus and seeming indifference to the important
events occurring around the family about which it's presumably written.
The author maintained my interest by teasing with suggestions of events to
come, but routinely failed to deliver. The book contains many short chapters
that end with a remark to the effect that so and so would find out such and such
was a big mistake. But you read on and nothing happens. This cliffhanger without
a cliff routine got old after the first few times.
Given the subtitle, I expected to read about how this family coped with Nazi
Germany, and what specifically they coped with. Though this was a family of
four, we read mostly about one member of the family. That member is the
daughter, who apparently was ahead of her time because she celebrated "free
love" before it became a fad in the 1960s. We read little about the mother or
The father, Dr. Dodd, was the US ambassador to Germany during the core period
covered by this book, yet we find little of substance about what he actually
did. Mostly, he writes letters that are simply ignored by higher-ups back home.
He got little support from the Secretary of State, a situation that would seem
worthy of more exploration and explanation.
Certainly, Dodd was in a position to observe and record far more of the story
than what Larson provides in this book. Dodd was, by training and practice an
historian. Yet we readers are left with precious little of the story Dodd might
have told about his time in Germany during the rise of Hitler. To me, this seems
like a glaring hole in the book. That is, unless one assumes Dodd is merely a
character incidental to the story of Dodd's daughter's dalliances.
Larson does describe a few events, most notably the SA purge. His coverage of
the SA purge is anomalous for the book, due to its detail a and relevance to the
historical period in question. Yet, the subtitle promises this sort of story for
the whole book.
Clearly, Larson missed an opportunity to create a work that truly informed
the reader. While this work may help some readers understand more about the
events that gave rise to Hitler, the author mostly just made Nazi Germany just a
backdrop for talking about the daughter's crazy love life. Much of that has to
do with Boris, who worked in the intelligence operations of the USSR. Larson
provides ample detail about these two lovers, but provides almost nothing about
what her parents thought of this. Boris may as well have been a native German
Now, consider the situation. The daughter of the US ambassador to Germany,
during the rise of Hitler, is openly engaging in an affair with a man who works
for the intelligence operation of the USSR. Larson gives the impression that the
ambassador apparently didn't connect the dots here. It's just not plausible. The
reason for omitting the father's viewpoint is the book should have been
subtitled, "The love life of the daughter of the US ambassador to Germany during
the rise of Hitler." That was the focus of the book. Edit out the false
cliffhangers, and you still have a book of little historical interest. But at
least it would deliver on its promises.
Yes, I am demanding much more of the book than the author delivered. But my
reasons for that should now be clear at this point. That said, this book wasn't
painful to read. The writing style was direct and clear, the text was devoid of
grammatical errors, and I don't recall encountering factual errors except for Larson's great exaggerations of Goering's obesity. If you read Larson's
descriptions and then look at Goering's photos, this will be readily apparent.
And I did like the few bright spots of "not just the daughter's love life" in
the book. For example, the account of Goering's tour gave me new insight about
Goering (although, as noted, his physical description was inaccurate).
A feature I like in documentary and "based on a true story" movies is the
"what became of them" riff that such movies typically offer at the end. So I was
pleased that Larson included an epilogue that let us know what happened to
various people in the book. Amazingly, several lived into their 90s and one died
The text of this book is 365 pages long. That said, some of those pages are
blank. And for each year covered, there's a page that has the year on one side
and is blank on the other. And there are short chapters that leave quite a bit
of blank page space. So I'm estimating about 300 pages of text. The pages inside
the front cover are printed with a map of the Tiergaren, 1933; the rear with a
map of Berlin (presumably the same period). Larson wrote six pages on "Sources
and Acknowledgements," and he has 56 pages of notes. The book includes 11
photos, and is indexed.