Wednesday, 12 November 2014

In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson

It was a coincidence that I ended up reading two Eric Larson books in such short order. One popped up on my friend's Kindle, the other I ordered as part of a long-term effort to read some bestsellers. So I'm in a good position to compare the two, as Devil in the White City is still so fresh in my mind. Trying to take the perspective of a non-historian, how do they stack up?

Well, In the Garden of Beasts benefits greatly from being about one topic, not two. I think Larson may have thought he was writing two stories again, the stories of the father and of the daughter, but given that you can lump both together as "the experiences of an American diplomat and his family in Nazi Germany," it hangs together as one story better than the two that only had geographical propinquity in common.

That being said, I was more bothered this time by the way he tackled history. I appreciate the quotation marks, telling us what was a direct quote. But then I'd notice details that weren't direct quotes, and for which there would be no proof, like Hitler's facial expressions and movements during a meeting. I know this is popular history, and it doesn't have to be as circumspect in how it is written, but it was a niggling thought in my mind, repeatedly: how does he know that?

I remind myself again, popular history. Still, it nags.

But it is a more coherent narrative this time, looking at a man who was an academic tapped to be a diplomat, who clashed with the career diplomatic staff, and gradually came to see the full menace of Nazi Germany, even though it took him a while. That's actually the most interesting part, how everyone starts out skeptical that the Nazis can really be as bad and effective as they are, until they've seen it themselves. And there are a lot of people who don't see it themselves, who keep believing that it must be isolated incidents. As a study in how people normalize this type of atrocious activity, it's fascinating.

The daughter's ventures into society, and her same trip through dismissal to outrage when people she knows are affected, are a much better counterpoint to the main story than the serial killer was to the Chicago World's Fair.

Larson's purpose seems to be to rehabilitate the image of Dodd as one man who recognized early the threat of the Nazis and was ignored, as opposed to being seen as an ineffectual diplomat over his head. I get the feeling, however, that he might have been both, simultaneously. He can have accurately perceived the threat of the Nazis and not been the greatest diplomat. He might also have been unfairly undermined by the career diplomats. All of these things can be true. It isn't an either/or.

At any rate. For popular history that takes fair liberties with events and reactions (or, as a friend put it, about Devil in the White City, historical fiction), it's interesting. The stories hang together much better than they did in the other one of Larson's books I've read.

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