Biographers seem never to tire of Theodore Roosevelt, and the 26th president certainly provides a rich vein.
“He is a subject of eternal fascination,” Roger L. DiSilvestro, author of “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West,” said in an interview.
For those interested in the broad sweep of Roosevelt’s life, full-fledged biographies abound. If a small slice of Rooseveltian life is more to your liking, plenty of those are available, as well.
Recent successes in the latter category include Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America” and “Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edward P. Kohn.
You can add “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands” to the list of successes. DiSilvestro, an editor at National Wildlife magazine and the author of several books on endangered animals and ecosystems and also one on the aftermath of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, returns to the Great Plains to tell the story of how Roosevelt used his brief time in the Dakota ranching business to recover from the death of his first wife.
Roosevelt first went to the Badlands to hunt in 1883. He fell in love with the stark beauty, staked a ranching claim (part of the land is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park) and hired locals to tend the herd before returning east.
Then, on Valentine’s Day 1884, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie, died within hours of each other.
DiSilvestro uses the tragedy as a jumping-off point to explore in rich detail how Roosevelt dealt with his loss. He retreated first into himself, then into the Badlands.
Corralling a pair of hunting acquaintances from Maine to assist him, Roosevelt lit out for the territory, leaving behind a burgeoning political career and his newborn daughter, also named Alice. He considered his career to be over and left Alice in the care of his sister, Anna.
DiSilvestro makes good use of non-Rooseveltian sources, but much of the story comes straight from the Bull Moose’s own books — he wrote two about his ranching and hunting days in the Dakotas — and from his letters, particularly the ones he wrote to Anna.
Roosevelt comes across as the likable, energetic fellow he was, always ready to do his part. But DiSilvestro does not spare the modern reader the contradictory reality of the 19th-century conservation ethos.
Roosevelt has rightly earned a place in the environmental pantheon for his trailblazing efforts in founding the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the earliest conservation organizations, and for his actions in preserving wilderness lands during his administration. But Roosevelt and his cohorts killed a lot of game, many of the species vanishing even in his time.
He knew the animals were vanishing. In fact, as he noted in his own writings on more than one occasion, part of the thrill of the hunt for him was in tracking, finding and shooting “one of the last of its race,” whether bear, elk, bighorn or buffalo.