Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

This year, for One Book, One Community, we're discussing Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. And, the entire community is involved with all kinds of events. It started with the Evansville Museum of Arts, History, and Science, and their decision to exhibit a quilted book made by a Holocaust survivor. They asked the library if we could pick a book for One Book. The theme for the community has become "Evansville Remembers". The symphony will perform "War Requiem". Our PBS station is showing documentaries. We are reading In the Garden of Beasts, discussing it in book groups, and hosting Erik Larson on Oct. 28.

In the Garden of Beasts is subtitled "Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin". It's the story of Ambassador William E. Dodd, his wife, along with his adult son and daughter, who served in Berlin from 1933 to 1937, during Hitler's rise to power. While Dodd's daughter, Martha, launched herself wholeheartedly into the German society, flirting and dating all kinds of men, from Nazis to Soviet Communists, her father, a quiet scholar, seemed unable to fit into the social scene. He actually had hoped to use his time in Berlin to work on his pet project, a book called Old South. Instead, the entire family was caught up in the drama and politics of Germany in the '30s.

Was Dodd the right man for that time and place? Most in the State Department and Diplomatic Corps did not think so. He was laughed at for being economical. He was as sheltered and ignorant as the rest of the world when he went to Berlin, accepting the Nazis. But, over time, the entire family became disillusioned. And, Dodd himself started to warn the world about what was coming.

In the Garden of Beasts is a story to evoke terror. The Dodds witnessed the arrest and killing of friends before they finally left Germany. And, Larson is honest in presenting the brutality that arose in the country. It's not an easy book to read. It's as if we were watching a naive American family standing in front of a runaway train. One American ambassador could not change American politics when interest at home involved getting money back from the debt the Germans owed. And, Martha comes across as a shameless woman who would do almost anything for excitement. She never really redeems herself in the course of the book.

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is a powerful, scary book. Tomorrow night, one book group will meet in a local German restaurant, the perfect setting to discuss this account of a tragic time in world history. In Larson's notes at the end, he said "What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler's rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul." I can see that it would.

Erik Larson's website is www.ErikLarsonbooks.com

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Random House (Broadway Paperbacks), 2011. ISBN 9780307408853 (paperback), 450p.

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