Erik Larson, author of the nonfiction bestsellers The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm, believes he has the “tiniest office in the world.” He’s never actually measured it, he admits. But he says the teeny room—a sort of foyer to the master bedroom’s closet—once served as the makeup room for a previous owner who was a prominent local newscaster.
“It is very small, but it’s cozy,” Larson says during a call to the home in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that he shares with his wife, Dr. Christine Gleason, who heads the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and their three daughters. “It’s probably the best office I’ve ever had.”
“No one really studies the very first year of Hitler’s rule. This is about the first dark warnings on the horizon."
One of its saving graces, Larson says, is that “a good chunk of it has windows. I’ve got what you call territorial views to the north. I see a hilltop, then a valley, then the next hilltop and the next hilltop, then a little lake. It’s very, very nice.”
And that captivating perspective—along with his “addiction to tennis”—seems to have provided at least a partial antidote to the gloom Larson experienced while researching and writing his riveting new book about the first year of Nazi rule, In the Garden of Beasts.
“When you get immersed in this era there’s something so repulsive about it that it can really drag you down,” Larson explains. “No one really studies the very first year of Hitler’s rule. This is about the first dark warnings on the horizon.
“What I found was that when you’re writing a book like this, in territory that has been pretty heavily mined in other ways, you have to read the basics. And there are a lot of basics to read. You just have to read and read and read. That’s what starts to infect you,” he says. “It’s the accumulation of these little bits and pieces of horror. It began to drag me down. And you feel this immense frustration: Why didn’t anybody do anything?”
That is one of the needling moral questions that haunts a reader throughout In the Garden of Beasts. To bring that and other questions vividly to life, Larson presents the experiences of an American family who were there and witnessed the almost-overnight changes in Germany. Charles E. Dodd, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to be U.S. ambassador to Germany, arrived in Berlin in 1933 with his wife, his son and his daughter Martha.
“Dodd and his daughter were probably ideal characters to follow because they came from very different perspectives,” Larson says. “Martha’s life in Berlin really does follow an almost novelistic arc. She begins utterly enthralled with the Nazis, becomes less so, and is finally so disgusted that she goes over—as many did—to seeing the salvation of the world in Communism. She became a very mediocre, more or less useless agent, and it destroyed her life.”
Martha is, frankly, a piece of work. She has affairs with highly placed Germans and a long-term affair with a Russian agent. She is out and about provoking grumbling, if not consternation, among consular staff. How did this not exasperate her rather strait-laced father?
“My sense is that this is a time when people gave their children a lot more independence at a younger age,” Larson says. “I’m a father of three daughters [they are 22, 20 and 17 years old] and we’re close, but I can’t pretend, at this moment, to know what goes on in their REAL lives. They could be dancing on a table in a bar right now. I think there is a sort of wishful blindness that all fathers engage in.”
Ambassador Dodd, on the other hand, is an almost Mr. Smith Goes to Washington character. A history professor with a dry sense of humor and a strong belief in Jeffersonian principles, he was friends with Carl Sandburg and President Woodrow Wilson. He shipped his unprepossessing Chevy to Berlin, raising eyebrows among both scornful U.S. State Department elites and the Nazi leadership, which prized symbols of wealth and brute power. Many in the foreign service thought he was out of his depth.
“To his credit I actually think he did exactly what he should have done in that era,” Larson says. “He wasn’t kowtowing to the Nazis. He had his own prejudices about the Jews and so forth, but they were sort of an ambient background prejudice, they weren’t going to get in his way. I think in some weird way he was the right man, in that place at the right time, because he drew a line, a moral line. Especially after the events of June 30, 1934, he reacted appropriately, with horror. If the world had done the same thing, who knows how things would have turned out. The conventional wisdom is to criticize him. But there are those who refer to him as Cassandra, because he knew before everyone else what was happening. I think that’s accurate.”
In Larson’s telling, what happens in Berlin unfolds in chilling detail. “Getting the detail right is a very important part of my mission,” Larson says. “I want to present, to the extent I can, what something smelled like, what the weather was like.”
Yet despite his love of discovering historical detail, Larson doesn’t think of himself as a historian. “Partly that’s because there are multiple layers of dust that accumulate in one’s mind when one says the word historian,” he says, laughing. “I think of myself more as an animator of history. Now I’m not talking at all about making stuff up. I mean finding enough details to put into the narrative that readers will connect the dots and the story will come alive. So my goal is to bring the past alive and to create a historical experience.
“Ideally, I want somebody to jump into the book at the beginning and in one night or two or three or four read all the way through it and at the end come out of that book feeling as though they had experienced a past time in almost a physical way,” Larson says.
By that measure in particular, In the Garden of Beasts is a resounding success. It will keep you up late at night, turning the pages.