The Pencil Today:


“If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.” — Thomas Merton


Drop everything you’re doing this instant. Go out and buy Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.”

Read it.

Erik Larson

Larson hit it big with his “Devil in the White City” a few years ago. His latest is even better than The Devil. The best way to describe Larson’s books is to call them “fact novels.” They’re not historical fiction in the sense that we understand some of Gore Vidal‘s works or even Philippa Gregory‘s. He’s a straight historian who tells his true stories with the care, craftsmanship, and imagination of the novelist.

I copped In the Garden a couple of days before The Loved One and I drove off to Florida last week. I couldn’t put the book down throughout our stay. Here’s a sure sign that I love a book: when I near the end, I intentionally slow myself down so as not to finish the thing. When I read the last sentence of In the Garden, I felt a sense of loss and emptiness.

Anyway, In the Garden tells the story of William Dodd and his family who moved to Berlin in 1933 when Dodd was named US Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany.

The Dodds About To Board An Ocean Liner For Germany

Larson follows in detail the lives of Dodd and his daughter Martha, a flighty narcissist who had passionate affairs with a Russian diplomat who turned out to be a spy, a Gestapo big shot, a World War I flying ace, and other dashing but morally iffy swains. Martha, who viewed herself as a literary figure and an adventuress, previously had carried on flings with the likes of Carl Sandburg and was ardently devoted to Thornton Wilder, although she and he did not play on the same team, before her family set out for Germany.

Gestapo Strongman and Martha Dodd Paramour Rudolf Diels

Ambassador Dodd was among the first to recognize the coming horrors of the Nazi regime. This despite the fact that, like most Gentile Americans, he harbored at least a hint of anti-Semitism.

For her part, Martha at first embraced the Nazis, with their sharp uniforms and their hordes of tall, hunky, blond, young men marching through the streets of Berlin at any given moment.


A striking aspect of Larson’s description of 1930s Berlin is the sense of peace and serenity which imbues the city despite the recurring ugliness.

And why didn’t the United States government raise a bigger kick in protest against the Nazis? One big reason was the fear of being labeled hypocrites: this holy land treated blacks pretty much the same way the Nazis treated Jews.

The whole thing reminds me of many of my lefty confreres who seem convinced that these Great United States, Inc. today are merely a rerun of Springtime for Hitler. Come to think of it, tons of right wing whacks think Obama nation is Reich redux as well.

All I have to say about it is, read In the Garden and you’ll know that the real Nazis were sine qua non.


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3 thoughts on “The Pencil Today:

  1. Save me a copy of In the Garden of the Beasts, my next Book Corner purchase! As to racism in America, I was just the unlucky recipient of an extremely anti-Obama and blatantly racist email from, of all people, my cousin in Evansville. And she’s on the Sandberg side of the family. I feel dirty, like I need a shower!

  2. Alex Levy says:

    If you’ve enjoyed “in the Garden of Beasts,” (I certainly did) you might also enjoy “Hitlerland,” by Andrew Nagorski. It is about other the reactions of other Americans to Berlin in the 1930’s. I was born there in 1936 (poor choice of birthplace), a few months before the Olympics 🙂

  3. Dave Y. says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts”. The book was incredible. One of the best I’ve ever read. His style of writing made you feel like you were right there in Tiergardenstrasse with the Dodds. I had never even heard of the Night of the Long Knives (Nazi purge of 30 June 1934) but now I see from Larson’s book that this one event was a 24-hour period that was critical in the lead-up to war

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