The Devil In The White City such a riveting read. (Thunderstruck also employs the dueling stories strategy, though to a lesser degree of riveting, I've heard). But in his fantastic new narrative non-fiction, In The Garden of Beasts, the juxtaposition is more in regards to how two people see the same story differently. That story: the darkening storm of Hitler's reign in 1930s Berlin.
William Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor, was the first American ambassador to Hitler's regime, arriving in Berlin in June 1933. A liberal with a strong sense of history, he saw the story for what it was: terrifying. But his flighty, romantic 24-year-old daughter Martha became enthralled with Berlin. She loved the city and the German people immediately, and refused to recognize the mounting signs of trouble.
Today, it's easy to look back and be perplexed by appeasement. Didn't anyone sound the alarm? Weren't the warning signs clear? It seems like they very well should have been — and to Dodd, they were. But he was not a career diplomat, and as an outsider, he had no support from the entrenched old boy's network at the State Department. In fact, he was FDR's fifth choice for the German ambassadorship — he'd been hoping for a much quieter post, because all he really wanted was to finish his life's work, a multi-volume history of the American south. Adding to Dodd's difficulty was America's general bent toward isolationism after the Great War and the fact that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and it's easy to see how Dodd's warnings went unheeded.
Larson alternates between Dodd's diplomatic struggles and Martha's exploration of Berlin, and its men. She dates several, often concurrently, including the head of the Gestapo and a Russian diplomat/spy. At one point, a German minister even sets her up on a blind date with Hitler himself — the theory being that the Fuhrer dating the daughter of the American ambassador would quell what were becoming increasingly tense German/American relations.
Throughout, Larson tells us these stories based directly upon fantastic primary sources, namely Dodd's and Martha's diaries. Martha was an aspiring novelist, so her writings contain rich detail of the city and her other adventures around Germany. As an historian, Dodd wrote with an incredible level of detail, too — down to conversations between himself and many of Hitler's henchman.
This is a fantastic book — clear, precise, and fast-paced, especially as you become increasingly horrified by Hitler's machinations. I'd humbly submit that the two most important criteria for judging a narrative non-fiction book are how interesting it is from start to finish (i.e., that there are not too many detours or superfluous or silly detail), and how much you learn from it. If you'll buy that, then believe me when I tell you, In The Garden of Beasts is top-tier reading. It'll appeal to a wide range of readers, from serious historians to beach readers. It's highly recommended.