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Monday
May212012

Quick review: "In the Garden of Beasts"

Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" has been on the best-seller lists for good reason. It's a surprising tale of yin and yang set in Germany just as the Nazis were sweeping to power. 

I've been a fan of Larson's since reading "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America," a terrific tale that blended a mass-murder mystery with the behind-the-scenes story of one of mankind's most impressive construction projects. It remains one of my favorite books, and I loved how Larson weaved two separate story lines into a common theme. 

Larson took that same approach with "Thunderstruck," which married a the pursuit of a high-profile murder suspect with Marconi's race to push a wireless radio signal across the Atlantic. "Thunderstruck" was interesting, but not as riveting as "Devil in White City." 

With "In the Garden of Beasts," Larson has returned to form. His illuminating look at the out-of-sorts American ambassador to Germany and his wild young daughter is full of surprises, and fills in a rarely told gap in the history of Nazi Germany and World War II. 

We shudder now at the mass extermination of 6 million Jews at Hitler's hands, but Larson informs us that leaders in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration publicly dismissed early reports of Nazi hate crimes while secretly supporting efforts to remove Jews from positions of power. 

Ambassador William Dodd is both suspicious and blind to the unrest in front of him. That chaos includes party-sanctioned beatings and his daughter Martha's daring romances with Americans, German officers and even a Russian spy. 

As with Larson's best work, history reads like a fiction thriller. It's a style of teaching I wish more writers could master. 

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