The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan: the Barking Book Review

Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (book cover)The Drowning Girl is an Incredible Achievement for Kiernan as She Continues to Evolve as an Author

It has perhaps taken me longer to get around to writing my book review of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir than it would have with some other book. But then one of the benefits of writing for your own amusement is that there is no such thing as a deadline. Having written under deadlines for so long, it always feels like a ridiculous luxury, this. So I’ve let several weeks pass between the moment I finished it and now, letting it digest and fully settle within my psyche.

To say that Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl did not disappoint would be an understatement, especially considering that I’ve had a year to look forward to it, having read the beginning chapter that long ago when she featured it in her monthly publication, Sirenia Digest. Then there is the fact that she is one of my favorite modern authors – I’m sure it that if this book had not been up to snuff in even the slightest regard, it would have registered as a big disappointment. But not only is it up to snuff but a pinch above it, even.

So if you’re not interested in the long of it, the short of it is this: it is most assuredly bow tie. And unless you are a frequent reader of Kiernan’s blog, you won’t get that inside joke, so let me clarify: it’s more than worth the cover price; buy it and read it. However, like The Red Tree, it is far along the writer’s evolutionary track and is some considerable distance from its predecessors. Personally I think this is a good thing; there is nothing more disappointing than seeing a talented author phone it in for the paycheck (not that I necessarily fault anyone for doing that; authors have to eat, after all). Fortunately for us Kiernan seems to be incapable of doing this sort of thing – incidentally, in my humble opinion, this inability separates the artist from the craftsmen when it comes to writing, and perhaps any artistic endeavor.

So anyone pining for another Silk, or even a Daughter of Hounds – which is still one of my favorites, by the way – is going to be disappointed. But then I suppose those readers have already jumped ship after The Red Tree.

That’s Gothic, Not Goth, Gawth, etc. …

There is a specific part of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir that echoes what I’ve come to think of as “classic Kiernan,” but I’ll touch upon that later. For now just let me reiterate: while The Drowning Girl has elements and themes in common with The Red Tree, it’s a distinct artistic entity, to say the least. In many ways what we have here is an almost traditional gothic novel. There are elements of horror and speculative fiction, to be sure, but they bubble and percolate through the background for the most part in what is a truly character driven novel.

After finishing The Drowning Girl I purposefully decided to read something familiar – to see an old friend whom I know well and am comfortable with, if you will. I wanted to let The Drowning Girl and the thoughts it engendered simmer in the back of my mind – there seems to be a theme developing here in this review – while I enjoyed a diversion that wouldn’t occupy my attention too much. In retrospect I think I may have unconsciously but instinctively chose Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights specifically, among the many other things I could have read (when reaching for literary comfort food I typically reach for Somerset Maugham, William Gibson or Tolkien).

Don’t get me wrong: you’ll find no Byronic antiheroes here, although Kiernan’s protagonist does enjoy the modern equivalent of a ramble on the moors: a drive on deserted back roads. But I think you could make a persuasive argument that The Drowning Girl has more in common with what we think of as the traditional gothic novel than that with much of Kiernan’s own oeuvre, specifically her earlier work.

This is perhaps by design, consciously or unconsciously – I would imagine the latter. Notably, Kiernan talked recently about her evolution as a writer and author on her blog. To wit.

People frequently ask: “I’m new to your writing. Where should I begin. For many years, this question vexed me. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve finally formed an answer to this question. I think it was, in part, a matter of maturing as an author, and gaining perspective, and being able to put my earlier works behind me. Now, I still can’t say, “Begin right here.” Rather, I can say, “Here are the books I believe would be a good starting place, a place from which you can develop a fair and accurate opinion of who and what I currently am as an author.”

She lists her two most recent novels, which includes The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and several collections of recent short fiction. As she goes onto explain:

Now, please note that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Silk or Tales of Pain and Wonder being your favorite books I’ve ever written. If they still work for you, that’s cool. I’m saying they no longer work for me, as I am no longer that writer or that person. Indeed, I never could have written the books of mine I currently favor had I not first written the books that are no longer representative of me as an author. Also, I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the older books; you should do as you, as a reader, please. I’m merely trying to honestly answer a persistent question.

And it’s entries like this that make her blog so eminently readable; she offers a lot of keen insight into the life of a working, published author and the art of writing itself.

And if you are new to Kiernan’s work, don’t get the wrong impression. There is much in her early works that is quite venerable and not without merit. Silk, for example, won or was nominated for a number of literary awards.

But I digress, as usual. Let’s get back to The Drowning Girl review.

Confronting the Truth in The Drowning Girl: A Memoir

Kiernan has remarked on a number of occasions in her blog that the process of writing The Drowning Girl was a difficult one; in some ways the most difficult to write of all her works. On one hand, while this is a work of fiction, she has stated that this is her her most autobiographical work to date. While not factual, or even thinly-veiled fact, it is nevertheless true. In fact – 🙂 heh – she has had some interesting blog posts in the wake of The Drowning Girl’s publication about truth vs. fact.

Indeed – I almost wrote in fact again – the protagonist of The Drowning Girl, Imp (a nickname; she’s not an actual small demon – which the reader might actually have encountered in Kiernan’s earlier works) – often discusses truth and fact. Something might not be factually true yet nevertheless be the truth of a matter; this is a theme at the heart of The Drowning Girl – as it arguably is for any gothic novel (and many non-gothic novels, of course).

Does Heathcliff every actually, truly see Catherine’s ghost wandering upon the lonely moors on a moonless, rainswept evening? Does Imp actually meet Eva Canning, and is Eva Canning really what Imp knows her to be – ghost, wolf, mermaid?

Does it matter? Whether something is factual or not – is this even relevant if it’s a matter of truth?

This is the question that ultimately India Morgan Phelps – Imp – must deal with and answer, if not definitively (and can anyone ever really answer this question definitively?), then to her own satisfaction. While every reasonably thoughtful person perhaps must deal with this question at some point in their lives, for Imp it is a key to her continued existence, as she must contend with her schizophrenia. What is truth and what is pyschosis? Is there a difference when ultimately we all live out our own lives, alone in the confines of our individual skulls?

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir author Caitlin R. Kiernan, by photographer Kyle CassidyWriting With Someone Else’s Voice: Kiernan’s Amazing Achievement

To elaborate, I think, would serve no more purpose than to provide spoilers. Let it suffice to say that Imp meets someone that may be a ghost; as such, she has to decide for herself the truth of her experience and confront her own mental state – and the ghost – in the process, because that has bearing on this truth.

While The Drowning Girl can be said to be a gothic novel, it can also be said to be a psychological novel. Written in the first person, Imp takes us along for the ride on her journey to the truth in her own mind, much of which takes place while she goes about her daily life – in other words, much of the novel takes place in Imp’s head. I imagine this may be a problem for some readers; it would be for me if the novel weren’t well written and Imp’s voice believable and sustained throughout the novel.

In fact I would hazard a guess that this is indeed a problem for some of her long-time fans; Imp is most assuredly not the writer that Caitlín R. Kiernan is (nor does she have much in common with many of her earlier characters); as such this is an amazing achievement when you think about it – and presumably part of the reason it was so difficult for her to write. While there may have been autobiographical elements – experiences common to both her and her protagonist – Imp nevertheless isn’t Kiernan, at least not the writer that Kiernan is; I know because I’ve read all of her published long fiction and much of her short fiction.

Kiernan manages to step out of herself, so to speak, and not just write about the character of Imp but assume the character of Imp and sustain that character throughout the entire novel. In fact there was only one point in the entire work where I felt she slipped in this endeavor and the author shined through – and this was the choice of one word. Nit-picky, perhaps, but these are the kinds of things that stick out like a flare on a cloudy dark night when I read, and why The Drowning Girl is such an accomplishment.

There were a few other places in the first half of the novel where I initially felt that Imp might not have said this or written that, but after having read further and gotten to know the character of Imp better, only the one aforementioned moment in the novel sticks out in my mind as problematic. Furthermore, this might not even trouble most readers; I think this maybe says more about me as a reader than Kiernan as an author. But it’s really the only true fault I found with the entire work (aside from the typos that seem to plague every first edition).

To reiterate: it must be incredibly difficult for an author to curtail their own instincts as a writer and write as someone else. To sustain it successfully over the course of an entire novel is an amazing feat. Only when Imp decides she must quit taking her medications for a time in order to confront the truth do we start to see a familiar voice – the so called classic Kiernan mentioned above. What this says with regard to the autobiographical elements of the story, well, I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate and speculate – which is all I could do myself.

There is one spot in the novel, though, where Kiernan steps out of Imp, so to speak: a short story “reprinted” within the novel that is relevant to Imp’s experience. It is reminiscent of Kiernan, but even then reads more like an author that shares some similarities in tone and subject matter, as opposed to reading like something written by Kiernan herself.

No, It’s Not Silk. Now Stop Whining

So there you have the long of it; all 2,000 words of it. Go buy it and read it, especially if you enjoy well-written, character driven gothic and psychological novels. Only two more things to add. One, I couldn’t help but notice when I was digging up an Amazon link for this novel that there was one – and only one – one-star review. I couldn’t help myself and read it; I’m a glutton for punishment.

The Red Tree by Sarah Crowe (and Caitlin R. Kiernan) -- alternate book cover.I think here we have someone – who claims to be a long-time fan – who wants the author to keep writing the same novel over and over. This person complains that nothing happens in the novel and that it is nothing more than a ripoff of Kiernan’s previous novel. This Amazon reviewer even goes onto more or less say that they don’t like it because it’s not like Kiernan’s novels prior to Red Tree.

To this person I would say they missed the entire thematic point of the work. But then you really can’t argue with someone who constantly seeks the literary comfort of the familiar; I know as I’ve tried. This is particularly true in this post-Tolkien age of George R. R. Martin- and Stephanie Meyer-dominated era of popular fiction.

As for the comparison to The Red Tree, I would say that if anything the opposite is true: The Red Tree is the knockoff of The Drowning Girl. I would hasten to add that I don’t see it this way, but thematically, The Red Tree has much in common with The Drowning Girl, and in retrospect, from a reader’s and critic’s perspective, it feels like the novel that had to come before The Drowning Girl. Again, I’m just speculating — and may actually be way off base — but I don’t think Kiernan could have gone from Daughter of Hounds to The Drowning Girl without The Red Tree coming in between; it serves as a bridge. I think more thoughtful long-time readers of her long fiction would agree.

As for that second other thing to mention, it is this: The Drowning Girl, A Memoir hit a little close to home. This talk of ghosts and haunting – Imp is not only troubled by the appearance of Eva Canning but haunted, in a sense, by the memory of her mother and grandmother and the respective manners in which they died.

I know what that is like, to be haunted by memories, to have troubled ghosts wander through your dreams or leap into your thoughts, unbidden, during the waking hours. But I’ll save that for a metaphorical ramble some other time.

Buy The Drowning Girl: A Memoir at Amazon. 

Check out a video book trailer for The Drowning Girl here.

Review: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is Not Your Parents’ Speculative Fiction

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoHaving recently caught up on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, as well as having gone back and reread Tolkien – damn near all of it; people with torn quadriceps tendons need comfort food – Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo was quite a refreshing bit of fantasy, if you can call it that. It was nominated for a 2011 World Fantasy Award, so I suppose we can. But the term speculative fiction fits Redemption in Indigo better, however, as there are elements of physics – albeit of a fantastical flavor – interwoven with Senegalese folklore and spirits called djombi – reflections of its author’s Carribean roots (she’s a native of Barbados) and the larger African diaspora, perhaps, as well as a professional life steeped in academia.

Redemption in Indigo is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a splendidly well-written first novel. But it seems remarkable to me that here is a rather slim and succinct book – in comparison to today’s genre fiction with its stereotypical bejillion-page magnum opus XI of XX – that has no swords in it and really no visceral violence to speak of contained within its pages. There are no swooning damsels – in distress or feeling randy – although our main character is certainly in distress of a kind (but not the kind that can be fixed by white horses and shiny armor).

Really it’s remarkable that books like Redemption in Indigo get published at all in this day and age gritty fantasy. But it’s fortunate for us that we do. Cheers to Small Beer Press, the dead-tree counterpart to Weightless Books.

The beginning – even books about the spirit of Chance and its tool, Chaos, have a beginning – of Lord’s Redemption in Indigo finds the aforementioned Paama fleeing her ten-year marriage. Her husband, Ansige, you see, is a gourmand in the worst sense of the word – “not an epicure, but a gourmand,” as Lord’s narrator tells us. In short, he is an irredeemable glutton. Thus we find Paama, getting close to the wrong side of youth, her marriage a childless and loveless failure, having retreated to her family’s home in its ancestral village.

It may sound trite, if not down-right yawn inducing, but in Lord’s capable hands, it doesn’t read this way at all. In fact the book’s opening vignette is rather skillfully humorous. As we meet bumbling and hapless Ansige, he is undertaking a perilous journey to Paama’s village – perilous because he is limited in the amount of food he can take and prepare along the way to sustain his usual-yet-ridiculously voracious diet. And it is here, even before we meet Paama, that we meet our first djombi, and get a hint that this book might be more than it initially seems.

It is here, too, that we first meet our narrator, the story teller. If I have a bone to pick with Indigo in Blue, it would be with Lord’s use of the narrator. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s get back to Ansige and Paama.

Ultimately Ansige, a minor character, turns out to be not a humorous figure at all but a tragic one; he has only himself to blame for his circumstances. Paama, on the other hand, is fate’s plaything – or rather that of Patience. And plaything is really not the right word; let’s call her an instrument of Patience, as she uses Paama to achieve the redemption of the spirit of Chance, or at least offer him a path to rehabilitation.

While Paama is a central character in Redemption in Indigo and of critical importance to its plot, it is Chance that is the main character; Lord uses the folktale of Paama and Ansige to introduce what I suppose we can call the spiritual dilemma of the undying djombi. As Karen Lord explained in a recent interview with Carribean Beat arts magazine, there are no fantasy elements in the original story at all; she added these as she developed the story.

Chief among those is the character of Chance, who has become disillusioned with humanity and subsequently filled with ennui. As an immortal being imbued with the power of Chaos, this is – well, I’ll let Lord’s narrator tell it:

Remember what we mentioned to you before. This is a dangerous person. He enjoys lulling the prey into a feeling of safety before killing it. That instant of betrayal, that twist of perception when one realizes that one’s entire universe is founded on a lie – that is the moment that acts on his boredom as splendidly as champagne on a jaded palate.

This description comes near the beginning of the story, soon after Paama has been given the power of Chaos unknowingly, and Chance has come looking for it. It is when he finds her that the story at the heart of Redemption in Indigo begins. Let us skip to the end of the story: having been confronted by the most powerful being in his pantheon, Patience, Chance is, shall we say, offered another chance.

“What changed, she asked him.

He walked a few more pensive steps, and then answered. “Paama is an unusual woman.”

… “Not as unusal as you might think,” she said, replying at last to his comment about Paama. “There are many women like her, considered by some to be virtuous and lyal, considered by others as foolish and week. What about Paama changed you?”

“Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing to simply obey.”

“Ah, so you saw her duty,” Patience said, sounding pleased.

“No, not at first. She saw her duty long before I noticed it. There are many things that I once knew but which I had forgotten, and one of them was that human duty is not very different ours.”

And, later in the conversation, when Patience has put her offer on the table:

Chance looked at her and considered long and hard. He had tried isolation, and it had been sterile and useless. He had tried to do as he pleased with humans, and instead of senseless vermin he had found Paama, remarkable in her own ordinary way, and very burdensome on his conscience. He found himself running out of choices.

So what choice does he make? You’ll have to read the novel to find out. But Chance’s potential redemption is not the only one on offer in Indigo; there is that of Paama as well. Chance takes her on a journey through space and time in an effort to show her that Chaos is not a power that is easily wielded, even with the best of intentions. As Lord describes it early in the novel:

Chaos was a far subtler force than most people realized. It would be so easy to sense if it threw off thunderbolts or sent barely sensed thrummings through the fabric of reality, but it was nothing more than the possible made probable. It did not break or bend any laws of nature or tip the balance of the universe. How would a mere human understand how to manipulate it? They would end up thinking they were merely lucky, or blessed.

What’s more, our jaded immortal tries to convince her that humanity is not even worth the trouble. But in the end, Paama may have illustrated for him otherwise.

As for Paama’s own redemption, again, you’ll just have to read the novel. And you really should.

Raucous Storyteller or Unnecessary Convention?

Now, about that bone of contention. Narrators that stick themselves into stories that are otherwise told from an omniscient third person point of view almost always bother me. If a story otherwise told in the third person needs a narrator as character, then there’s a problem with the story (or the author). I think it is a convention that rarely works, even for accomplished writers. Furthermore, I think it’s often done because of writers’ lack of faith in their own abilities; sometimes those fears are unfortunately real, at other times unfounded.

While I can’t speak to the inner workings of Karen Lord’s mind, I can certainly say there is certainly no lack of writerly talent in Redemption in Indigo, and certainly none that needs to be bolstered by a narrator as character. Initially I was a little put off by the presence of this narrator – yes, it’s a bias, I’ll admit, but one with reasonable foundations, I’d argue – but in Indigo the narrator’s presence works and works well for the most part, enriching both prose and story, rather than getting in the way.

I read Redemption in Indigo on my Kindle, and when I looked through most of the quotes I had made from the book, the majority of them in fact comprise clever asides by the narrator. To wit:

Alton’s Love Poems to Neila have been famous for years, as everyone knows, but if you want to sample them for yourself, or try a verse or two on your own beloved, I fear that you will have to buy the published works or attend one of the performances still running in theaters in many of the major cities. A minor writer such as I cannot afford the cost of reproducing the words of the poet dubbed Love’s Own Laureate.

And to be fair, Lord’s narrator mostly keeps out of the way, while still offering up those clever asides, like this early description of our aforementioned poet:

A terribly shy man, he was far too self-deprecating, an unhelpful trait in any person who aims to sell snatches of empty air shaped around vowels and consonants, or worse, bits of white paper irregularly stained with black ink.

Or this gem, again with regard to the hapless poet:

Women fell into that category of fantasies and dreams that worked well when unfulfilled but presented all kinds of problems when brought out into the real world of trial and failure.

And lastly:

Many women, by their beauty and sheer presence, have reduced intelligent men to babbling idiots or gaping mutes, but few have inspired to such heights of eloquence a man who can only be described as mediocre. There is the secret. Show a woman that she has the power to improve you a thousand times over, and she is yours for life.

That last one literally made me laugh out loud when I read it. Like all good humor that relies on hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in there.

But there are times when Lord’s narrator becomes needlessly intrusive, and this is annoying at best.

… but I am hearing some rumblings from my audience. You are distressed that I have spoiled the moving and romantic tale of how Love’s Laureate courted his beautiful wife? You complain that I have turned it into a cobbled pastiche of happenstance, expediency, and the capricious tricks of the djombi? I bleed for your injured sentiments, but to dress the tale in vestments of saga and chivalry was never my intent. A sober and careful reading of history will teach you that both lesser and greater persons have been treated more roughly by fate. Be content. If it was only a djombi’s vanity and aversion to human company that caused Alton to become a merchant prince for one night, if it was fear of discovery and capture that made that djombi flee, thus settling a lordly mantle on Alton for all time, how does that come to be my fault? I am only the one who tells the story.

It is particularly annoying because her prose stands on it own and easily; it doesn’t need this sort of thing and it consequently only serves to disrupt the story. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Karen Lord, author of Redemption in IndigoHaving said that, there admittedly may be a cultural nuance here that I’m missing or just otherwise don’t understand, being a native of an Ohio suburb. In the course of looking for some biographical information on the author, as well as some background on cultural beliefs with regard to djombis, I came across several reviews that praised Lord’s narrator as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling in African cultures and consequently the African Diaspora – namely the West Indies. The idea that our spirited narrator was a nod to cultural roots – either consciously or otherwise, never occurred to me, quite honestly. Furthermore, I have to admit that in that context, the feisty narrator as character makes more sense.

In any event, Redemption in Indigo is an excellent novel, at turns amusing and insightful. Let us hope that Karen Lord’s muse will inspire many more such works.

And now that I’ve read two of the six nominees for the 2011 World Fantasy Award in the novel category – Lauren Beukes’ amazing Zoo City – I’m curious to read the winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. It just occurred to me, incidentally, that all of these novels have an African connection. Zoo City is set in a South Africa of the near future, while Who Fears Death is set in a far-future Saharan Africa.

P.S. For an interesting review of Redemption in Indigo that delves into how Lord weaves physics into her narrative, check out review at Small Axe Salon.

P.P.S. This novel was the winner of a Mythopoeic Award, a Crawford Award and a Frank Collymore Award, in addition to being a World Fantasy Award finalist. It was also longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literatures and shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

P.P.P.S. Longlisted? Er?

Get Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo here.

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

A U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany Provide’s a Unique Perspective on Hitler’s Rise to Power In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.Perhaps for many who look back at World War II, the one that happened after the War to End All Wars, the most obvious lingering question is how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and how the regime was able to do the terrible things it did, namely the holocaust.

The rise of imperial Japan may seem relatively straightforward, but when we look back on the atrocities of the Third Reich, it begs the question, how? How did we let that happen? Particularly when we consider than only two decades before most of the Western world was swept up in a war dominated by German empire and militarism?

How did we, we being the Allied powers, let that happen?

Erik Larson attempts to answer this question, at least in part, with his book In the Garden of Beasts. Some might find that the book isn’t satisfying, or at least not satisfying enough, as it is limited in its scope. It inevitably touches on these large questions, but Larson doesn’t set out to rewrite William L. Shirer’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

So this isn’t necessarily a flaw or a problem with the book per se, but it does leave one hungry to learn more, to delve into the answer to this question more deeply. This is to the book’s credit, however.

As Larson himself says at the beginning of the book:

There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know — now — to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.

Even those with a casual interest in history will find In the Garden of Beasts a worthy and interesting read. Students of World War II history will no doubt find it compelling reading.

U.S. diplomat William Dodd's family upon their arrival in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Daughter Martha is on the left.A journalist by trade before he began authoring nonfiction books, In the Garden of Beasts looks at the early years of Nazi Germany, specifically 1933 and 1934, through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha – Larson’s two innocents abroad. True to his roots as a journalist, Larson sticks largely to first person accounts – journals and diaries, personal letters, diplomatic communiques and the like – as his source material; anyone quoted in the book is quoted from material that they actually wrote at the time.

So what Larson elaborates is a view of the Third Reich just having come to power with Adolf Hitler as chancellor; at the time Dodd arrives in Berlin Hitler and his allies are moving to consolidate his power and authority over the country. This culminates in the infamous Night of the Long Knives – the bloody purge of the paramilitary Stormtroopers – followed shortly by the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who represented the last obstacle between Hitler and absolute control over Germany.

We see these events from the two disparate perspectives – disparate initially, although converging in the end – of Dodd, who was 63 at the time of his appointment in June of 1933, and Martha, who was 25 at the time she first arrived in Berlin.

Dodd perhaps has a unique perspective on events; he certainly was an unusual choice on the part of President Roosevelt as U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd was a well-respected professor of history by trade, who happened to have earned a PhD at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1900 – he spoke German and professed a fondness for the Germany of his youth. Although he was active politically – he was good friend of President Woodrow Wilson and described himself as a Jeffersonian democrat – he had never been involved with the U.S. foreign service or its diplomatic corps.

While Dodd was well-to-do by the standards of much of America in the early 1930s – the early years of the Great Depression – having a small farm in Virginia and a residence in Chicago, as well as his own automobile, he was a man of modest means compared to the good-old-boys club of the U.S. diplomatic corps. The fact that he wasn’t part of this so called “Pretty Good Club,” and approached his diplomatic post as an historian with a sober and no-nonsense attitude caused almost immediate conflict with those in the otherwise rarefied world of international diplomacy, including his colleagues in the U.S. State Department.

As Larson notes, Dodd himself suggests before he leaves for his post in Berlin “that his temperament was ill suited to ‘high diplomacy’ and playing the liar on bended knee.” But then this is what makes Dodd’s story compelling; he was much closer to Middle America than what we would perhaps describe now as a beltway insider.

And it is this that brings us to what is so tragic about Hitler’s rise to power: there were people in Germany in the early 1930s that saw what was happening – the consolidation of power, the brutal repression of dissent and civil rights, the subjugation of Jews, the military buildup – and tried to warn the outside world. Dodd was among them.

But as it happened, Dodd’s major task as determined by Roosevelt and his advisers wasn’t necessarily to try and provide a moderating influence on the fascist regime. No, his job was to convince Germany to repay its debts to American business interests. The president did instruct Dodd to provide an example of American ideals while in Berlin in hopes that this might provide some positive influence, but the primary goal was to convince German business to repay that considerable sum.

But it is through Dodd – and Larson – that we begin to see how the world let Hitler happen, so to speak. In a civilized world still weary from the previous World War and in the depths of the Great Depression, it was hard for many to conceive of what was happening in Germany and where it could lead. Dodd was no different. As Larson tells us, “ever a student of history, Dodd had come to believe in the inherent rationality of men and that reason and persuasion would prevail, particularly with regard to halting Nazi persecution of Jews.”

Even when confronted with damning first-hand reports, Dodd doesn’t truly grasp the German situation at first. George Messersmith, the head of the American Consulate in Germany at the time of Dodd’s appointment as ambassador, had already been sending numerous warnings back home to Washington. These communiqués were Dodd’s first real clue about what was happening to Germany under the Third Reich.

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship.

William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, at his desk in the U.S. embassy in Berlin, 1933.I would describe myself as probably having a somewhat more avid interest in history than the average person – call me a casual history buff and would-be scholar. But I must admit that I wasn’t aware that by 1933 there were already concentration camps, and the repression of Jews and other groups was commonplace and out in the open, as Larson establishes In the Garden of Beasts. In fact no less than Hitler himself suggests to Dodd that Jews have to be removed from Germany by one means or another.

So it is all the more astonishing in retrospect that nothing was done until it was too late and German troops were sweeping across Europe.

But even after Dodd has been in Germany for some months and saw for himself the brutal repression taking place in the streets – American travelers in Germany were no safer than anyone else, and attacks on foreign travelers by brown-shirted Stormtroopers was not uncommon – his belief in a rational world won’t let him fathom that this sort of behavior could persist for very long. He felt that the Hitler regime would surely either have to moderate its stance or be removed from power; it was apparently a common belief throughout Europe and the Americas.

As Larson elaborates:

Messersmith met with Dodd and asked whether the time had come for the State Department to issue a definitive warning against travel in Germany. Such a warning, both men knew, would have a devastating effect on Nazi prestige. Dodd favored restraint. From the perspective of his role as ambassador, he found these attacks more nuisance than dire emergency and in fact tried whenever possible to limit press attention. He claimed in his diary that he had managed to keep several attacks against Americans out of the newspapers altogether and had “otherwise tried to prevent unfriendly demonstrations.”

Dodd meets with Hitler himself and sees his manic personality first hand – but even Hitler’s evident hysteria isn’t quite enough, unbelievable as it is.

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.

But as Larson documents, within a year Dodd realizes that Messersmith and others, namely Jews that had already escaped Germany and the foreign press corps stationed there, are right: Hitler and his ilk are madmen, madmen with a firm grip on the German nation. And that they are madmen preparing for war; any declarations of peaceful intent were simply diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

Later, Dodd wrote a description of Hitler in his diary. “He is romantic-minded and half-informed about great historical events and men in Germany.” He had a “semi-criminal” record. “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent.”

How, then, could one reconcile this with Hitler’s many declarations of peaceful intent? As before, Dodd believed Hitler was “perfectly sincere” about wanting peace. Now, however, the ambassador had realized, as had Messersmith before him, that Hitler’s real purpose was to buy time to allow Germany to rearm. Hitler wanted peace only to prepare for war. “In the back of his mind,” Dodd wrote, “is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.”

Casual Racism and Perception of the Jewish Problem

In contrast to Dodd we have his daugher, Martha. A Jazz-Age child, Martha is perhaps more representative of the outside world’s attitude toward the warnings coming out of Germany. As Larson shows us early in the book, Hitler is viewed by many as a joke, this silly little man with a goofy mustache – how can he be a threat?

For her, however, the prospect of the adventure ahead soon pushed aside her anxiety. She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously. She was ambivalent about the Jewish situation.

She clarifies that ambivalence herself:

“I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as Gentiles and were less socially desirable.” She also found herself absorbing a view that Jews, while generally brilliant, were rich and pushy.

In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States;” another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

Indeed, that’s another astonishing thing for us to discover here in 2011 – the casual racism toward the Jews. Not that it existed – that’s hardly surprising; racism must surely rank with prostitution in terms of age and human history. Rather, it’s just astonishing how open and accepting people were about it, including politicians, career politicians that would document their racist views, surely knowing that they would be published. Here in the information age when considerably smaller faux pas can ruin a political career nearly instantly, it is almost unbelievable.

For example, William Phillips was U.S. under secretary of state under Roosevelt at the time of Dodd’s appointment. As Larson notes, Phillips made no effort to hide his racist beliefs:

Phillips loved visiting Atlantic City, but in another diary entry he wrote, “The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight – very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.”

Apparently Jews on the beach in Atlantic City was a big issue for prejudicial folks back then. As Larson notes, Wilbur J. Carr, assistant secretary of state at the time, declared in a memo (!) about his issue with Jews on the boardwalk, among other places:

In a memorandum on Russian and Polish immigrants he wrote, “They are filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews.” He too complained of the Jewish presence in Atlantic City. He and his wife spent three days there one February, and for each of the days he made an entry in his diary that disparaged Jews. “In all our day’s journey along the Boardwalk we saw but few Gentiles,” he wrote on the first day. “Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind.”

OMG! No way! as the kids say today. Again, in this day in age, it’s unbelievable that a politician would write this in a memo – a public document. The overt racism is difficult enough to comprehend, even if we admit that racism is more common today than we might like to admit (easy to say when you’re a white guy, of course). But can you imagine what would happen if someone working for Hilary Clinton, in the Obama administration, were to put such sentiments in a state department memorandum? The public outcry would be immediate and that person would be forced to resign just as quickly.

But as Larson illustrates In the Garden of Beasts as well as in interviews, such as the one with NPR’s Fresh Air, overt racism was much more commonplace in Dodd’s time. Even Dodd himself, while not exhibiting the venomous attitude of Carr and Phillips, had his own prejudices when it came to Jews.

While he is clearly mortified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as a diplomat he does his best to try and sympathize in hopes of providing a moderating influence. In a discussion with Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, the German foreign minister at the time Dodd was ambassador to Germany, Dodd discusses the Jewish “problem:”

Dodd pressed on, now venturing into even more charged territory: the Jewish “problem,” as Dodd and Neurath both termed it. Neurath asked Dodd whether the United States “did not have a Jewish problem” of its own. “You know, of course,” Dodd said, “that we have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life.” He added that some of his peers in Washington had told him confidentially that “they appreciated the difficulties of the Germans in this respect but that they did not for a moment agree with the method of solving the problem which so often ran into utter ruthlessness.”

But for daughter Martha, sympathy for the Nazi’s became more about rebellion than a matter of racism or support for German fascism.

On a personal level, however, Dodd found such [attacks on Jews] repugnant, utterly alien to what his experience as a student in Leipzig had led him to expect [of Germany]. During family meals he condemned the attacks, but if he hoped for a sympathetic expression of outrage from his daughter, he failed to get it.

Martha remained inclined to think the best of the new Germany, partly, as she conceded later, out of the simple perverseness of a daughter trying to define herself. “I was trying to find excuses for their excesses, and my father would look at me a bit stonily if tolerantly, and both in private and in public gently label me a young Nazi,” she wrote. “That put me on the defensive for some time and I became temporarily an ardent defender of everything going on.”

After a year in Germany, however, even Martha comes to realize what is happening in. This is in spite of, or perhaps in some respects, because of, the fact that Martha socializes with high-ranking members of the Nazi regime and the Gestapo. At one point Ernst Hanfstaengl, head of the Nazi’s foreign press bureau in Berlin and a personal associate of Hitlers, even tries to fix up Martha with no less than the Führer himself.

In person, the cult of personality that surrounds Hitler becomes more understandable; he comes across as anything but a clown to Martha.

She walked to Hitler’s table and stood there a moment as Hitler rose to greet her. He took her hand and kissed it and spoke a few quiet words in German. She got a close look at him now: “a weak, soft face, with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure.” At this vantage, she wrote, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures – in fact, I scarcely noticed it.”

What she did notice were his eyes. She had heard elsewhere that there was something piercing and intense about his gaze, and now, immediately, she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

While Dodd’s book doesn’t directly address the larger questions that may plague us about World War II, the insights offered by the first-hand experiences of Dodd and his daughter are undoubtedly invaluable, not to mention fascinating.

But What Happens in the End?

If there is anything that In the Garden of Beasts might be criticized for, it might be that Larson seemingly spends an inordinate amount of time on the first year of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin, and little on the three that come after. Indeed, for the casual reader the details of Dodd and Martha’s lives at times might become a bit much. But then, after the Night of the Long Knives, there really isn’t much left to tell.

By the summer of 1934, with the bloody purge and the death of Hindenburg, what comes next is the inevitable stuff of history. The only things that might stand in the way of Hitler and the Nazis are powers outside of Germany’s borders, and we already know at this point that the warnings emanating from Berlin have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Indeed, after Hitler’s purge swept across Germany in June of that year, Dodd considered stepping down.

For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd’s friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead.

Nothing in Dodd’s past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more acuity than ever his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador. If he could not, what then was the point of remaining in Berlin, when his great love, his Old South, languished on his desk?

Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in the Germany city of Nürnberg, 1935.His Old South was a definitive written history of the southern United States; prior to becoming ambassador, that was Dodd’s primary goal for the remaining years of his life, to complete this grand, scholarly historical work. Ultimately he remained in Germany at his diplomatic post until the end of 1937, having been forced to resign – his enemies, the good old boys of the State Department, finally got their way in the end, as did Hitler and the Nazis, in the short term.

So were Dodd’s efforts in vain? This effort took a huge toll on both him and his wife’s health; she died in May of 1938; he died less than two years later. He never finished his beloved Old South.

I suppose I should leave the answer to that to the reader to discover. While there are perhaps no spoilers in terms of the larger story that serves as a backdrop to In the Garden of Beasts – we know who won World War II, after all, and what happened to Hitler (more or less). But there is still much to learn and much that history can tell us, as Larson’s book illustrates.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s perhaps as important lesson today as it ever was, given not only the geopolitical climate at large today, but the political climate here in the United States. Here in this post 9/11 America, people who tend to get upset about things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, torture and the holding of suspects indefinitely without due process of law, are often countered by the argument “it can’t happen here.”

The Germans said the same thing.

Get Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts here.