Book Review: Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough
Winner of the 1982 National Book Award for Biography, Mornings on Horseback is the brilliant biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt. Hailed as a masterpiece by Newsday, it is the story of a remarkable little boy -- seriously handicapped by recurrent and nearly fatal attacks of asthma -- and his struggle to manhood.
His father -- the first Theodore Roosevelt, "Greatheart," -- is a figure of unbounded energy, enormously attractive and selfless, a god in the eyes of his small, frail namesake. His mother -- Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt -- is a Southerner and celebrated beauty.
Mornings on Horseback spans seventeen years -- from 1869 when little "Teedie" is ten, to 1886 when he returns from the West a "real life cowboy" to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and begin anew, a grown man, whole in body and spirit.
This is a tale about family love and family loyalty...about courtship, childbirth and death, fathers and sons...about gutter politics and the tumultuous Republican Convention of 1884...about grizzly bears, grief and courage, and "blessed" mornings on horseback at Oyster Bay or beneath the limitless skies of the Badlands.
David McCullough does a fantastic job evoking the feeling of an era that has long past, of a way of life that might not have ever existed except in the romanticized memories of those who lived it. As I read about Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood, I wanted to have lived it myself. I also found myself wanting to provide that kind of life for my own kids, which might be ridiculous, but that was what went through my head as I read.
I fell in love with Theodore’s parents. His kind, civic minded, faith-filled father, Theodore Sr, who the family referred to as Greatheart because of his devotion to and love of neighbor and family. And his beautiful, sweet, strong mother, Mittie, who came North from the deep South. Theodore’s siblings were fascinating in their own right.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the author’s descriptions of the family’s trips to Europe and to Egypt where they sailed along the Nile. The dreamy quality of the trips made me want to travel. To spend months or even an entire year immersing myself in a trip.
When the family went to Europe, they spent a whole year traveling to England and Scotland, to Paris, and to Switzerland. They hiked the Swiss Alps, stayed a month in Paris, and visited family. Some days they would hike up to twenty miles.
In Egypt, the family rented a dahabieh, which was a massive house boat as they sailed down the Nile River. Sailing down a river, stopping at various ports along the way, sounds like an amazing way to spend time together as a family.
The book ends with an epilogue of sorts, giving tidbits of information about how life turned out for the four Roosevelt children. My absolute biggest problem is that the author doesn’t detail what happens to Theodore’s daughter from his first marriage, Baby Lee as he liked to call her. With his second wife, Edith Carow, he had five children and was apparently a wonderful father, so what of his first child?
According to a Wikipedia article, she was raised by her father and step-mother, though that I’d there was tension in the family and she continued to rely on her aunt, Bamie, who had raised her when she was a little girl. Her life reads like a sweeping work of historical fiction, completely fascinating. I am definitely planning on reading more about her.
In honor of the National Park Service’s one hundredth year, I highly recommend reading this book about Theodore Roosevelt because it gives a completely different view of the former president than any other book I’ve read.