The Book Buzz

History that comes to life

“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson.
“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson.

Some South Shore readers don’t have to wait for the start of school in the fall to tackle history books. History is always their first preference because it captures their intellectual interest at any time of the year.

Robert Libby, a 60-year-old Weymouth resident, says, “I continually enjoy reading about all different eras and about different historical figures, and find that a particularly good author will manage to seize a moment in time long gone and breathe life back into it.”

One nonfiction book that Libby just finished and highly recommends is Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” published in 2005.


The book follows Teddy Roosevelt, his son, Kermit, and one of Brazil’s most famous explorers, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, as they attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of a previously uncharted 1,000-mile tributary of the Amazon River.

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After his defeat in the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt visits his son in South America, and they ultimately join forces with Rondon as the first white men to explore the Rio da Davida, or River of Doubt.

Before the trip is over, both Roose­velts nearly lose their lives as they face fierce white-water rapids, man-eating piranhas, attacks by indigenous tribes, disease, and starvation.

Libby said the book provides not only a great story of adventure but an insightful look at the character of this larger-than-life historical figure.

“I didn’t know much about Roosevelt, and was struck how this once very sickly, nearsighted, asthmatic child became a man who was determined to take on physical challenge not only to overcome his past but to deal with personal tragedy, loss and grief; whether it was the death of his wife, or the disappointing loss of an election.”


He adds: “I was surprised to learn that when he became desperately ill, he requested to be left behind so as not to jeopardize the rest of the team. Without delving into his politics, this book is a story that conveys between the lines his high moral character, boundless energy, and courage.”

Still, Libby said, the other main character in the book is the Amazon, which is just as “determined and enduring” as the old Rough Rider.

Scott Nelson, a 28-year-old website design specialist from Hingham, describes Erik Larson’s 2011 book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” as a great read that captures a charged moment in history and makes the people and mood of the time come alive.

Larson’s work focuses on the experiences of the US ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family from 1933 to 1937. They arrive in Berlin when Hindenburg is president of Germany and Hitler its chancellor.

“Never have I read such a well-researched, well-documented piece of historical writing that is more captivating than fiction,’’ said Nelson.


The took tells the story of the rise of Nazi Germany through the eyes of both Dodd, a former University of Chicago professor, and his flirtatious, soon-to-be-divorced, 22-year-old daughter, Martha. While Dodd revels in diplomatic circles, Martha immerses herself in Berlin society and romantic liaisons in both artistic and high-ranking military circles.

All of the Dodds initially find a certain appeal to Berlin and Nazi Germany, but in time, Martha and the ambassador come to see how naive these early impressions are, and through their eyes we get a glimpse of the growing fear as the Third Reich begins to reveal its true colors.

The book goes on to document Dodd’s attempts, albeit late and ill-fated, to warn President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the Nazi menace.

According to Nelson, the book “really gives the reader a rare view into both the hidden tensions within the Nazi party, and the mind-set of the German people after having been left stripped and crippled in World War I.”

He added that it was intriguing to read about average Germans who were shocked by the Nazis’ rising violence, yet welcomed Hitler’s vision of restoring German pride and power.

“Reading history is not only fascinating, but important,’’ Nelson said. “We once wondered how a nation like Germany could sit back and let a man like Hitler rise to power. . . . This book gives us a clue well worth thinking about.”

Libby agrees that “reading history is invaluable, because a well-researched, detailed narrative provides the human story behind historical events and maybe leads us to consider what motivates both moral and amoral behavior in all men, and observe historical role models of the best and worst man has to offer.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at