'In the Garden of Beasts': Larson gives historical characters nuances
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When it comes to unfortunate times and places to launch a diplomatic career, Berlin in 1933 would have to be in the top five.
As the Nazi government initiated more and more restrictive measures on its citizens and others who found themselves in the country, an "echo of normalcy" was beginning to settle over Berlin, writes Erik Larson in his latest book, "In the Garden of Beasts." Though a tough spot for a new, lightly qualified ambassador, it is however, a perfect stage for a work of historical fiction -- except Mr. Larson doesn't write fiction; he writes incredibly readable narrative nonfiction.
"Technically speaking I'm a failed novelist. I've got four complete novels that I've never published," Mr. Larson says by cell phone while being driven to an appointment in Nashville. "I consider that training for using many novelistic techniques while writing nonfiction, techniques like suspense, withholding, foreshadowing."
Throughout "In the Garden of Beasts," Mr. Larson manages to maintain the characters' point of view (another technique borrowed from fiction), balancing what they couldn't possibly foresee with what readers know eventually happened. That knowledge gap helps build tension, inspiring "don't go into the basement" reactions in readers.
"We see these people doing things and we're like, 'Why are you dating the chief of the Gestapo, don't you see what's coming?' " Mr. Larson says.
"In the Garden of Beasts" centers on the ambassadorial tenure of William E. Dodd, former head of the University of Chicago's history department and biographer of Woodrow Wilson. Dodd assumed his Berlin post in 1933 and left Germany in 1937; in the meantime he witnessed events such as the Reichstag fire trial and the Night of the Long Knives purge. Mr. Larson uses the latter as a final wakeup call to those still on the fence about the increasingly psychotic nature of the Nazi regime.
One of those still flirting -- literally -- with the danger was Dodd's 24-year-old daughter Martha. Separated from her husband (most of her circle didn't even know she'd been married), while in Berlin she dated a French prince, a Soviet embassy staffer and spy, and Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo chief. Martha comes off as reprehensible, reckless and silly; the tiresome young American (or Englishwoman) who ignores all warnings and eventually gets herself into trouble. Think Margaret Lockwood's Iris Henderson in Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes." Rather than Michael Redgrave's carefree musicologist, however, Martha's suitors were intimately involved with what was playing out in Berlin.
Those connections and the two-for-one aspect of the Dodds made them perfect lead characters for "In the Garden of Beasts," if not perfect people.
"It was kind of like 'The Devil in the White City' [Mr. Larson's best-seller about a serial killer loose at the 1893 World's Fair]. I would not have wanted to write about [Dr. H.H.] Holmes alone, nor would I have wanted to write about the fair alone, but there is something about the two of them together," he says of the contrast between the practical, button-downed Dodd and his spirited daughter.
"What I find far more interesting than heroes is people who are complicated, nuanced, and still in the end, come out with their integrity more or less intact," Mr. Larson says. But he acknowledges that writing nonfiction relieves him of responsibility for his characters' flaws, saying "If Dodd is an anti-Semite on some level; I can't change that. And if Martha sleeps around, I can't change that, either."
The Dodds came to the fore late in Mr. Larson's research; the idea to set the book in 1930s Berlin came after Mr. Larson read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," a history written by William L. Shirer. Mr. Shirer had been based in Berlin as one of Edward R. Murrow's legendary CBS radio correspondents; his book got Mr. Larson thinking of what it must have been like to encounter the leaders of Hitler's regime at parties, in cafes, etc., while watching their policies take shape.
Mr. Larson re-creates that heady atmosphere by mixing in Berlin landmarks -- some no longer standing, some rebuilt and repurposed after the war Dodd had begun to feel was inevitable -- to put readers in the midst of the action. As does almost anyone who writes about Berlin (of any era), he liberally quotes Christopher Isherwood to convey a sense of place. It was a time when much of the imagery we now associate with the Nazi regime -- the swastika, the goose step, the Hitler salute -- was just beginning to appear, the sinister associations not yet established. Mr. Larson uses firsthand accounts, especially those of American embassy staffer George Messersmith, to describe the scene.
One of the questions posed by "In the Garden of Beasts" is why was there such a delay in exposing Germany's leaders and holding them accountable for what was happening. Dodd eventually wrote letters to key U.S. figures, warning of Germany's potential under Hitler of wreaking havoc on Europe.
Alternatively naive and stubborn, Dodd wasn't a clear-cut good guy; he nevertheless serves as a potent vehicle through which present-day readers are given access to the early days of Nazi power, when most of the world wasn't yet ready to acknowledge or deal with the developing crisis.
First Published May 29, 2011 12:00 am