Saga tells of family's struggles with Nazis

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 13, 2011

“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” by Erik Larson. Crown. 464 pp. $26.
By Erin Vanderberg
Associated Press
How could an American family living in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s first year in power have underestimated what was afoot?
This empathetic viewpoint is at the crux of Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.” Larson intertwines the experiences of the Chicago Dodds with the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933.
William Dodd, a history professor from the University of Chicago, was selected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the ambassadorship in Germany. Unassuming, kindly and frugal, Dodd believed he could reason with the Nazis while having some time to complete his history on the American South. This belief runs its predictable course.
Martha, the Dodds’ 24-year-old daughter, leaves a failed marriage and her job as a literary editor to accompany her family to Berlin. With the immediate cachet of an ambassador’s daughter, Martha enters the realms of high society, which initially captivate and delight her.
Chronicling the rise of the Third Reich in this intimate fashion is Larson’s most serious nonfiction undertaking yet. The Dodd family was an incredible discovery of primary sources, while the 12-page bibliography indicates the full extent of the project.
What is most remarkable is how difficult it was for Larson to write this book. Larson acknowledged that he was unable to keep his “journalist’s remove” during the research process and that he was blindsided by “how much the darkness would infiltrate” his daily life.
Readers will likely find their share of that same burden, and there are times when the book plods slightly under the pressure. Nevertheless, Larson has done it again, expertly weaving together a fresh new narrative from ominous days of the 20th century.