Thursday, June 14, 2012

History with an Individual Focus

I usual explain to people that I prefer to read fiction over nonfiction, but when I look at my reading list, I have to qualify that assessment. What I find, though, is that I love a good story well told above all.

I first discovered Erik Larson's work when I read The Devil in the White City, his book that tells of the people who dreamed of the Chicago World's Fair and brought it to life.  In that book, while looking at the big picture, Larson wove a narrative thread of a doctor in town who became a serial killer, luring young women who had arrived in town, single and independent for the first time, then murdered them.

While that story was particularly disturbing, the facts and details he used to balance it, telling about the architect heading up the plans for the exposition, Buffalo Bill's performances outside the perimeter of the fair, the first Ferris Wheel, the fire--all were fascinating to me.  In fact, the year I read the book, I went to Chicago with my husband on business and while he worked, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry, the only permanent building of the World's Fair, and Graceland Cemetery, known as "the architects' cemetery" to see the graves of so many people mentioned in the book.

I went on to read Thunderstruck,  the story of Marconi and the invention of the telegraph, told alongside the story of Hawley Crippen--another true life murder mystery.

This summer, after visiting The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., again, I began reading Larson's latest publication In the Garden of the Beasts.  There have certainly been many various accounts of Hitler's Germany, but this book focuses on the early years, beginning in 1933 when William Dodd was named U.S. Ambassador to Germany. An unlikely pick, Dodd and his family spent several unsettling years in Berlin during Hitler's rise, as America and most of Europe seemed to ignore all warning signs, intent on keeping peace--or attempting to recoup the debt of Germany owed to American investors.

In this book, Larson focuses on Dodd and on his adult daughter Martha, who traveled with her father, mother, and brother, leaving behind an estranged husband about whom she told almost no one.  She lived an exciting, sometime scandalous social life, consorting with men of all nationalities--including prominent Nazis--and falling in love with a Russian diplomat charged with recruiting her to spy for the Soviet Union. In the novel, Dodd is shown and often misunderstood and maligned. He was an academic placed amid the "Pretty Good Club"--diplomats living on inherited wealth, far above their salaries. Dodd insisted on shipping his old, plain Buick to Berlin and living as a model for American citizens suffering through the Depression. His example earned more ridicule than admiration.

Dodd seemed to open his eyes more quickly to Hitler as a threat, but his warnings were barely heeded.  Only years after he was recalled to the States--leaving reluctantly--did other recognize his insight.

Through the stories of Martha's interactions with the people of Berlin, Larson also introduced a number of American journalists--some with Jewish heritage--working in an increasingly threatening environment.

While it seems that everything that could be written about this part of the world at this particular time has been written, Larson's book manages to serve not only as a historical account, but as a warning to readers to pay attention to the world scene, not discounting aspiring leaders with ridiculous agendas.  Hitler, while seeming cartoonish and laughable, certainly inspired much more than mockery.

1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

great review. this book has been getting raves at my bookstore and selling very very well. i can see why!