Rated as The New York Times #1 Bestseller, Erik Larson writes of William Dodd, the American Ambassador to Germany during the early 1930s. Larson does a great job portraying the resentment of all people- the Jews in the eyes of the Germans, the Germans in the eyes of the Americans, the corrupt diplomats in the eyes of the Dodd family, and so on.
One has to admit that the 1930s and that whole era was pretty hectic- you had World War 1 in the late 1910s, the Great Depression in 1929 (and further on) and you had the rising crisis of Germany becoming a world power, about to cause World War 2. During the 1930s, Roosevelt and his cabinet had to choose a new ambassador to Germany, and after various attempts, chose Dodd after he was recommended. Roosevelt badly needed someone in office and knew that Dodd was pretty much his last hope. He told Dodd to think about it and that, “I want an American liberal in Germany as a standing example.”
Now, Dodd was no politician, he was a history teacher at the University of Chicago. He was born in Virginia and grew up with a Jeffersonian view point. He wasn’t rich, didn’t know how to show off extravagance and his only reason for considering this job was so he would have extra time to write his book Old South. He replied to President Roosevelt that he would accept the offer, and Roosevelt told him that he wanted Dodd to collect the debt Germany owed America and to do anything possible to protect American citizens within Germany.
We come to meet Martha Dodd, William Dodd’s daughter, who . . . is basically a player. She married a man in America, then separated (but not divorced) and went with her family (Dodd, his wife Martha, and their son William-called Bill), to Germany. There she met a NKVD officer Boris Vinogradov who she deeply fell in love with, but always had her suitors. The book really focuses on the treatment of the Dodds by the diplomats, the relationships of Martha, the secrecy and paranoia of everyone, and especially the German treatment, laws and politicians during the era. It goes through the “Operation Hummingbird” days (where several 100 people were shot for charges of being against the government) and through the various revolts in America.
One cannot help being reminded of Pulp Fiction. Although a bit slow at the beginning, the novel picks up after the first 50-100 pages or so. And just like Pulp Fiction, the story does seem a bit confusing, with Larson cutting from excerpt to excerpt and leaving it to the reader to piece them together. Larson could be talking about Dodd in a meeting with Hitler himself, then go to Hitler kissing Martha’s hand, and back to Hitler and Dodd having a meeting. And although we know how World War 2 ended out, we don’t know this story and we find ourselves asking ourselves what will come next.
Larson is able to transmit fear and paranoia in any situation, and does so frequently, using it as his bait and hook. During certain times in the book, one might feel like that paranoid scene from Goodfellas, and yet you yourself are out of the danger. In my view, it is a bit boring and confusing when it comes to all the jumping around, but it still leaves you waiting for the next chapter which will bring the chapter from two chapters ago together (← see the confusion? Enough to get you to reread the page again, but not enough where you just put the book down).
Be aware that the book could actually change your viewpoint on things. While Larson doesn’t try to be pro or anti- Germany, he does convey the good and bad of it well. It somehow reminds me of Inglourious Basterds– besides the obvious World War 2 overtone, the book is split into various chapters (well, all books are) that go back in forth in time as well as tone and setting. It even has its own comedic parts, and just like the movie, we find ourselves laughing at certain serious moments of death. (For example, when Paul Schultz was to be killed, he was brought into a forest and shot. The guards left to get a sheet for his corpse, and Schultz ran away. This caused then General Goring to go berserk and order a whole company of men to be shot). And thanks to the book, every time I see the words: SA men, I see storm troopers- as it was their nickname. Also, make sure to have a dictionary around when reading the book. There is at least one new word that you have not encountered on every page or two. (Jodhpurs?).
For all, I give it a 8 ½ ★★★★★★★★☆ since it was honestly entertaining with a few slow parts, and that you had to be continually reminded who everyone was since the book did keep jumping around from excerpt to excerpt.
*For all those who don’t have to read this as a summer reading book but still want to know what it’s about, Tom Hanks is to star as Dodd in the 2014 film adaptation of the book.