Amid the outpouring of Theodore Roosevelt biographies, National Wildlife senior editor Di Silvestro (In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Story of the Indian Wars, 2007, etc.) provides an examination focused on four years (1884–1888) of the president’s early manhood.
The author painstakingly studies the period during which Roosevelt shuttled between New York City and the sparsely populated Dakota Territory. In 1878, Roosevelt was reeling from the death of his father. Two years later he married Alice, and four years after the marriage Alice gave birth to a daughter. But Alice died at age 22, just 48 hours after the baby's birth, and Roosevelt's mother died on the same day at age 48. Desperate to escape his sorrow, Roosevelt took leave from his job as state legislator to roam the ranges of the Dakotas. He had journeyed there during 1883 to hunt wild game, and the barren, starkly beautiful land captivated him so fully that he had purchased a ranch. Di Silvestro demonstrates how Roosevelt developed the ranch to become a serious breeder and seller of cattle. Although a minor celebrity among the rancher population because of his family's prominence back East, Roosevelt managed to fit in with the permanent residents of the Dakotas. Despite his frequent journeys back to New York to participate in politics, visit his baby daughter and his supportive siblings, the hardy Dakota settlers eventually decided Roosevelt was more than just a greedy carpetbagger. As the book's subtitle indicates, Roosevelt sought “recovery” by soaking up the culture of the Dakotas, and that sought-after recovery eventually came to him. At the end of 1888, he married Edith, who could not completely replace Alice but whom he loved dearly. The author makes the case that Roosevelt's sojourns to the Dakotas imbued him with a strong sense of environmentalism, and that earth-loving ethic became a hallmark of his years in the White House.
A good example of how focused biographical writing, when skillfully executed, can enlighten as well as a full-life biography.