I read In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson so long ago that I forgot I hadn't written about it until I ran across it in the New York Times list of 100 Best Books of 2011. I know, this forgetting doesn't bode well for my feelings about Mr. Larson's book, but I will plead an ongoing nasty feeling that I was forgetting something anytime I made a list of books I needed to write about and, of course, the general disastrous chaos of my life in this annus horribilis.
So in brief--I promise this time--here's what I can tell you about the book. In 1933, William A. Dodd, a history professor, won the not at all coveted job of ambassador to Berlin. He hesitated--being an ambassador was usually a very expensive job held by scions of rich families who could use their own wealth to pay for the vast amount of entertaining expected in European cities, and he just didn't have that kind of money. However, he thought that the ambassadorship would give him the time he needed to complete his passion project, a history of the antebellum South. After all, being an ambassador mostly involved going to events and occasional meetings, right?
Wrong--this was Berlin with Hitler and the Third Reich in ascendance, and Dodd found himself consumed by trying to balance the directive of the US government to stay out of German business with his increasing disgust and horror with the blatant atrocities going on around him. He also had to contend with the escapades of his family, particularly his daughter Martha.
She was considered to be very attractive and had already made the most of that in Chicago. Just in her early twenties, Martha had married hastily once and either was getting divorced or in the proces of being divorced when she went to Germany (I told you, it's been a while). I believe she was also was practically engaged to another man (or was that before she got married?). And was having an affair with Carl Sandberg, the much older poet and friend of the family. That didn't stop her from enjoying the company of many other men while in Berlin. Many other men--a veritable international/political sampler platter of men. She had affairs with Rudolph Diels, the head of the Gestapo, a Russian communist spy named Boris, someone French, Thomas Wolfe when he was in town, others whose names and connections I don't remember. Martha's own writing about her time in Berlin is probably Larson's main source, so I did sometimes suspect that maybe she was exaggerating, or bragging a bit. However, there were Americans in the consul who complained privately about the wild behavior of Martha and the Dodd son, Bill, so there must have been something to it.