Finding Robert Coles ‘In the Garden of Beasts’

In the Garden of BeastsAuthor Erik Larson’s nonfiction work, In the Garden of Beasts, has been sitting in my “to read” pile since its pub date back in 2011. For the love of summer, I was able to turn the final page last night and can’t quite stop thinking about it.

Larson, also the bestselling author of The Devil in the White City, shifts his focus in Beasts to 1930’s Berlin, where the unlikely American ambassador William E. Dodd has taken his post during Hitler’s chilling rise to power. As Dodd navigates the complexities of his political post, the reader is introduced to an incredible cast of characters both demonic and heroic.

ColesCompFinal.inddIt is a wonderful intersect when what we read gives way to contemplation, and more so, empathy for humankind. It is of note here that I have also been reading Secular Days, Sacred Moments:  The America Columns of Robert Coles, recently published by Michigan State University Press.

Coles is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard University and “is unparalleled in his astute understanding and respect for the relationship between secular life and sacredness… .” (via)

In the thirty-one essays of Secular Days, Sacred Moments, which are drawn from Coles’s monthly column in the Catholic publication America, how odd that the one I happened to read today pertains to the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer, who lived “a singular, voluntary opposition to tyranny that culminated in his execution in a concentration camp only weeks before the end of Hitler’s regime,” is hailed by Coles. Bonhoeffer’s brave resistance to the Nazis outweighed his concern for self-preservation, and he left the safety of the United States to return and stand by his fellow Germans.

There is both a Christian and psychological angle to Cole’s essay, and having just read In the Garden of Beasts, it’s poignancy can’t be missed. The question, “What would you do under such circumstances?” is posed in Cole’s work, and hums behind each line of Larson’s.

In the Garden of Beasts offers a close, personal look at a pivotal era in history. The “what-ifs” are boundless, and the outcomes staggering. It is an important book in terms of moral self-examination and offers endless ethical scenarios for consideration. Though my reading of Cole’s Bonhoeffer essay is a coincidence, his full body of work in Secular Days, Sacred Moments offers much in the way we reflect and interpret our everyday exchanges and the world that surrounds us.

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– Post by Megan Shaffer

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Finding Robert Coles ‘In the Garden of Beasts’

  1. techeditor

    I read IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS.

    It was so gradual it was maddening that Dodd finally came to wonder if everyone in Germany had gone mad and wondered how there could be all around him such a “strange indifference to atrocity.”

    And Martha was really something! She was so slow to accept that she was witnessing evil that, long after she should have known better, she was happy to see that Germany was only trying to better itself. So she enjoyed herself: as a 24-year-old divorcee, she partied often and had affairs with several men, one the head of the Gestapo, another an official from the Soviet Union.

    So many books have been written about Nazi Germany, I wouldn’t have been anxious to read this one if not for its author. Larson is a master at getting it right and making it readable. Again, with IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, he’s a historian who wrote not a history book but a book of history that was a page turner.

    This is particularly true after William and Martha see Germany as a mere visitor there could not.

    But this book of history was, as all history books are, significant because history repeats itself. Or we learn from it and avoid the same mistakes.

  2. Megan Shaffer

    Agree. Gradual and maddening are perfect words to describe the response to the escalation of the Nazi party and the reaction of politicians in the United States despite Dodd’s keen predictions. As for Martha…

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