In the Garden of Beasts

by Erik Larson (2011)


For some reason I thought this was going to be a historical novel, so any disappointment I felt at its dryness is due to my faulty expectations. It was dry though, even by non-fiction standards, and it was unfocused by historical standards.

The overall feeling I had when reading it — again, while under the impression that it should be at least somewhat novelistic — was that Larson had unfortunately stopped one step short of making this story into actual literature. He did admirable work in researching all of the personal letters and diaries, and compiling all of his “characters” and their impressions. But then he left it in a bland, tell-don’t-show form that drained it of most drama and tension. Taking the next step to massage it into a cohesive, artful narrative would have raised it to the level of literature, much like Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

I recognize that this next step was probably outside the scope of Larson’s aim — he clearly wanted to keep the book strictly factual — but it would have at least made my experience more enjoyable. And even within the parameters Larson outlined for himself there’s a distracting lack of focus. The subtitle says “An American Family” but it’s really just two members of that family — Dodd and his daughter — who share the narrative focus with arbitrary, disruptive shifts between them.

Then the last 30 pages of the book seem totally rushed after the deliberate pace of the vast majority. After spending 300+ pages on one year from summer 1933 to summer 1934, the book inexplicably jumps ahead to 1937 for the last portion, only part of which was accurately labeled “Epilogue.” There was no natural resolution or even arc, which is probably the main difficulty with trying to present a history as a story but refusing to fictionalize at all. There was also an abrupt shift as Larson belatedly attempted to lionize Dodd after spending an entire book on his failings. It didn’t work for me.

As a history of early Nazism it was useful and enlightening. Learning the nuances of Berlin society during Hitler’s consolidation of power was illuminating, and Larson’s description of the shock caused by the brutal “Night of the Long Daggers” was revelatory as well. These pluses just weren’t enough to make the entire book a worthwhile read.


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