Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt was an “intrepid museum naturalist,” Lunde writes. He started collecting specimens when he was eight and continued to near his death.

Other biographies of Roosevelt may concentrate on his presidency or preservation of natural lands. This one focuses on him as collector and preserver of animals, from mice to elephants. It was a time of the collecting of curiosities and the promotion of dime museums and Lunde sets the stage for us.

It is amazing that Roosevelt was a frail child, suffering from asthma. With encouragement from his father, Theodore was determined to build up his body. He faithfully did his workouts and became a man of courage and vitality.

Lunde takes us through Roosevelt's childhood, learning taxidermy, family trips to the Adirondacks and then a year long trip to Europe and Africa when he was fourteen. He went to Harvard, taking joy in engaging nature by taking trips to Maine. He became engaged but before the wedding was diagnosed with a weak heart. He defied the doctor and remained active. Feeling a sense of responsibility, he studied law and became involved in New York state politics. He was devastated when his mother and wife died on the same day.

Roosevelt made hunting trips to the west and became part of a cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands. He saw first hand the near extermination of bison and elk. He became New York Police Commissioner in 1895 and participated in the Spanish-American War. He was so popular the Republicans parked him in a dead end job, vice-president to McKinley. But the assassination attempt and McKinley's death from gangrene saw Roosevelt become president in 1901, the youngest at 42. He was subsequently elected in his own right.

Lunde takes the last part of the book to cover Roosevelt's nearly year long trip to Africa following his presidency. The Smithsonian African Expedition was a good example of what Lunde describes as Roosevelt's hunting ethic. It “combined the thrill of the chase with a need to give something back in return.” (251)

I enjoyed Lunde's writing style. He includes a great deal of background information to flesh out Roosevelt's story. This book would be a good one for hunters and outdoors enthusiasts. The emphasis is definitely on the accumulation of specimens for natural museums, often describing in some detail the story of the hunt and kill. It is a very focused account of one aspect of Roosevelt's life, very readable and full of adventure.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

Darrin Lunde is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Previously, he worked at the American Museum of Natural History, where he led field expeditions throughout the world. He lives in Maryland.

Crown Publishers, 352 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.
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