In my writing classes, I emphasize the need for strong storytelling skills as a way of reaching a wide audience. I just finished a book that demonstrates this exactly: Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.
The work of narrative nonfiction tells the story of William Dodd, American Ambassador to Germany during the years 1933 to 1937 when Hitler and the Nazi Party were taking power in Germany. Dodd spoke German and loved the country, having received his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier. When offered the post of ambassador for President Franklin Roosevelt, he accepted and brought his family with him, including his daughter Martha, an attractive and flirtatious woman who had just separated from her husband and was in the process of divorcing him. Martha caught the eye of a number of high-ranking figures including Adolf Hitler, Gestapo Head Rudolf Diels and Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. The book does a great job of providing a view of the Third Reich from the ground up, Martha’s encounters with these men vividly illuminating the personal side of these men, a side often ignored in the histories of the era.
Larson is particularly good at using characters, including Martha, to tell the larger story from the inside out, one of the strategies I encourage my students to follow in my Seattle, online and travel writing classes. Martha is the principal point of view figure in the book which traces her early enthusiasm for Germany and the Nazi party. This enthusiasm gives way to uneasiness, dread, and open hostility as she sees the regime for what is truly is: a murderous, inhuman machine. It’s truly a gripping read from the opening which graphically details the wounds of a young American doctor who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of many such early warnings of Nazi brutality. Put it on your reading list!