For Erik Larson, the research in which he delves and delights for each project more than rubs off in readership appeal and enticing and informative enjoyment. “I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives,” he once said in an interview. “…You don’t have to make it up.”
Moreover, his vision has always focused on compelling narrative history of incidents and eras, as showcased in his Edgar Award winning The Devil in the White City, about the architect and age of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which served as the backdrop for the account of a serial killer who exploited the exposition to ensnare his victims. In Isaac’s Storm Larson chronicles how the massive Galveston hurricane of September 1900 killed as many as 10,000 in that Texas city alone, leading to larger new assessments about the causes and effects of such destructive and deadly natural forces. And by imposing scientific stratagems on murder at the turn of the 20th century London, Larson enhances the true crime tale in Thunderstruck centering on two disparate men, the genius Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless transatlantic communication, and the notorious English killer Dr. H.H. Crippen.
With the absorbing yet unsettling In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, however, Larson “made no effort … to write another grand history of the age,” he declares. “My objective was more intimate: to reveal that past world through the experience and perceptions of my two primary subjects,” as the real-life figures embarked on “a journey of discovery, transformation, and, ultimately, deepest heartbreak.”
It’s the account of Berlin, starting in 1933, from the increasingly discerning eyes of two Americans, President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, an academic historian who hoped Nazism would somehow lose steam, and Dodd’s daughter Martha, a 24-year-old free spirit who initially appreciated Nazism’s vitality and the social life and love affair after love affair she soon garnered. At first this new world seemed full of novelty and new horizons for both of them, but slowly — until the calamitous weekend that changed them forever – disenchantment and dark clouds of intrigue and dread fell over the whole Dodd family (which included Dodd’s wife Mattie, and a son, Bill).
As confirmation of Jewish persecution solidifies, as the press is censored, and alarming new laws enacted, William Dodd communicates his apprehensions to largely unresponsive State Department officials back home, who often undermine the efforts of their frugal and unostentatious “unfortunate misfit.” In addition, Larson — drawing on letters, diaries, memoirs, or other historical documents — backs up Dodd’s frustrating attempts to get some of the massive World War I debt owed to the U.S. by Germany, to empty promises and no avail by the foreign power, and little understanding by the State Department, who don’t comprehend early in the game that Germany’s money is being poured into military might and mass slaughter.
Any progress Dodd makes seems to come at a one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace. A rare leave of absence turns into a working U.S. vacation of sorts when he subdues a Jewish anti-Hitler rally in Chicago down to a quiet roar – but more than that, it promises to bring moderation on the part of Hitler’s government, who had been up in arms over the prospect of the protests. Any progress, however, is undone when Dodd gets word via wireless while midocean back to Germany: Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister, had just given a speech in which he called Jews “the syphilis of all European peoples.”
In the same year, 1934, Dodd had a second meeting with Hitler, set up by the State Department to discuss growing Nazi propaganda being unleashed in the United States, but Hitler, after blaming the problem on “Jewish lies,” went off on his own anti-Semitic tangent. Dodd fought the good fight, pointing out how Jews have assimilated in America, but Hitler was having none of that: