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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Me Vs. The Beasts

Aside from the obvious talent of the authors, what invariably astounds me about books like Erik Larson's "In The Garden of The Beasts" (2011) is the research involved in writing them. When asked for advice to pass onto aspiring writers, author Ernest Gaines said something like "read, read, and then read some more." Based on Larson's end notes for "...Beasts", it's fair to say he has heeded Gaines' sage counsel.

American Ambassador William Dodd & his family resided in Berlin from July 1933 until late 1937. In his prologue, Larson skillfully reveals the menace growing in Germany prior to those years. But most of this story of "love, terror and an American family..." takes place beginning with the Dodd family's arrival and ends about thirteen months later. All the events taking place after Hitler appoints himself President on August 2, 1934 - an act that sealed the fate of millions and propelled Germany into eleven years of moral oblivion - are then briefly summarized in Larson's final chapters.

Dodd was FDR's fifth choice for the ambassadorship and not a political progressive. And the other main character Larson focuses on, Dodd's 23 year old daughter Martha, was naive enough to take up with Russian spies and charmed when the Fuhrer kissed her hand. Just as in his earlier book "The Devil In The White City", Larson's scrupulous research and balanced writing brings these people vividly alive - strengths and flaws. Though I yearned to detest Dodd for his lack of outrage and agreeing to be "entertained" by a demon like Hermann Goring, thanks to the author I ended with a more nuanced view.

"These were complicated people, moving through complicated times before the monsters declared their true nature."  As always, I'm left with the question:  Faced with similar circumstances, what would I have done differently than these complicated people? You?             


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