In the Garden of Beasts: Parts 1, 2, and 3

October 5, 2012 | By | Comments (9)

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts

Hi, Bookies! Hope you’re enjoying the book so far. I admit, it started off a little slowly for me, but once the Dodds got settled in Germany things really started to pick up.

As the book went on, I was surprised that we got very little about Mrs. Dodd. I wanted to hear more from her unique perspective, and I wondered why she was essentially left out of the narrative—was it because there wasn’t a lot of documentation of her thoughts, was she not that interesting of a character, or did her story just not fit in with the book’s overall structure? Did Mrs. Dodd’s overall absence in the story strike you you as odd? It’s possible we’ll get more from her later on, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

In any case, we heard plenty about Martha and her many, many admirers. What did you think of Martha? I alternated between loving and hating her and either way, found her fascinating. I loved her carefree spirit and her unwillingness to be tied down; by all accounts, she was intelligent and charming and clearly adored adventure. But she also struck me as self-centered and sometime downright selfish (and naïve, but that’s understandable). I thought it was telling that even after seeing Anna Rath humiliated in such an awful way in Nuremburg for planning to marry a Jew, Martha refused to condemn the Nazis. It was only until her own personal life was affected—when Hans Thomsen turned off the Nazi anthem at her birthday party (a trivial incident compared to the Nuremburg episode)—that she began to have her doubts.

I also want back and forth over Dodd. Sometimes I really liked him, other times I got frustrated with his seemingly passive ways. I had sympathy for his very difficult position, though—especially since he was such an intellectual homebody who would much rather have been finishing his book on his farm in Virginia! Any time he attempted to suppress reports of Nazi brutality or refused to issue a travel warning for Americans in Germany for fear of damaging Germany’s reputation, I wanted to shake some sense into him (hard not to let hindsight creep in here, but still, if there’s a chance I could be randomly beaten by soldiers in a foreign country, you better believe I want my own country’s officials warning me not to travel there). By attempting to make things better between the two countries, he was only making things worse. But at the same time, he wasn’t afraid to confront German officials, boycott Nazi events, or even make a thinly veiled speech criticizing the Nazis. It was also interesting to see how the American officials back home thought he was stirring the pot too much, when we current-day readers are thinking he wasn’t stirring the pot enough. It’s a fine line and definitely helps explain how the situation in Germany slowly but surely fell apart. No wonder no one else wanted the job! What was your take on Dodd?

This book also raised some intriguing questions for me. I wonder: If you were currently facing a similar situation as the Jews living in Germany at that time, at what point (if ever) would you leave your homeland? The idea of suddenly being denied basic things that were part of everyday life—being barred from certain professions, being denied entrance or participation to events, and facing the prospect of random slurs, harassment, and even violence with no police protection—I feel like it would be enough to make me want to leave. But the idea of giving up your home, leaving behind friends, family, and everything you’ve known, and moving to a foreign country and starting from scratch…that’s a very tough thing to do. Especially when there’s so much uncertainty and you’re not sure if you have to move…yet.

There was so much going on in these first three parts, with so many players and premonitions of what was to come, that this discussion could go on forever—and we’re not even halfway through. What were your first impressions, and what are you looking forward to next? I definitely want to see how this Martha-Hitler setup is going to turn out!

Reminder: For next Friday, we’ll read parts 4 and 5.

Happy reading,