Sunday, May 15, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

The Periphery

It’s clear that Larson did a lot of research on his topic. In his notes, he indicates that the immersion into the atrocities of Nazi Germany “proved to be a uniquely trying experience.” I can imagine. Unfortunately for me as the reader, I think that shows in the final product. We are kept on the periphery, and thus spared the same trying experience as the author.

Part of my disappointment of this book lies in my own expectations of it. The jacket clearly says “The story of one family in the shadow of Hilter’s rise to power.” And the focus is on the family, and they are definitely in the shadow. What appealed to me about this book was that it was about Hilter’s first year in power. I wanted to know more about him, his motivation, the people around him. I realize now, that there are other books for that.

That being said, this is definitely a comprehensive look at the Dodd family. Borderline unremarkable people who found themselves in remarkable circumstances. I can’t say I felt anything much for Dodd, or his daughter Martha. I felt Larson spent way too much time on Martha’s affairs, and ultimately they did little to further the story. I’m not even sure how Larson felt about Dodd. Ultimately, I guess he portrayed him very impartially – which probably explains why I feel ambivalent about him.

That’s a lot of criticism for a book I gave four stars to (3.5 in actuality). I’m definitely in a period of fascination about WWII. Historically, I’ve avoided stories with a WWII foreground or background; now I’m at a place where I’m finding them increasingly fascinating. I want that “uniquely trying experience.” This is certainly a topic I would not have thought much about. American dignitaries living in Nazi Germany, so from that perspective it was illuminating.

Parts were choppy, parts were slow, parts were seemingly irrelevant, but in spite of that, Larson managed to tell a really interesting story, and definitely answered some of my questions. Gave me some additional food for thought. Not to get too political, but America is often criticized for “sticking their nose” where it doesn’t belong. I think of the movie “Team America, World Police.” The condemnation of our involvement in the Middle East, etc. (I’m not giving my position on that, merely stating the sentiments exist.) But one does wonder, if in the time of Hilter we were more “Team America, World Police”-oriented if we couldn’t have saved a lot of lives. What I got from this book was that we took a position of wait and see. And by the time we saw, it was too late.

3.5/5 stars

1 comment:

Sextant said...

I believe I enjoyed this book a bit more than you did. One of the things that impressed me with it was the emphasis on how Hitler and National Socialism grabbed slowly piece by piece the German state, and in doing so converted a modern liberal western democracy into a horror story. The timing of Dodd and the book is critical. Good observation on neutrality in your review.

One of the best books I ever read on Hitler is:

Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock

Great review.