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Book Review: Roosevelt’s Beast

By (April 4, 2014) No Comment

Roosevelt’s Beastroosevelt's beast cover

By Louis Bayard

Henry Holt, 2014

 

The fabled Roosevelt-Rondon expedition into the Amazon rainforest in 1913, its bills footed by the American Museum of Natural History and its celebrity member, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, contracted to write the whole thing up upon his return, became the subject of a modest bestseller when Roosevelt produced his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, as thrashingly good and readable a thing as was everything else the man wrote. Then nearly a century later, it became an, as it were, immodest bestseller when Candice Millard turned the subject into a minor classic of popular historical narrative in 2005’s The River of Doubt.

There’s a reason for this: it’s a durably good story. The famous martinet explorer Candido Rondon, the aging but indomitable Colonel Roosevelt, plus Roosevelt’s son Kermit, a further group of scientists, and a band of native rowers and porters – they all undertake to navigate the thousand-mile Rio da Duvida through jungles teeming with poisonous animals and hostile tribes, and disaster quickly ensues. The rowing and portage becomes arduous; rations run low; the Colonel himself hurts his leg and becomes fevered and debilitated. Suddenly an orderly Edwardian expedition devolves into a protracted struggle for survival.

No wonder, then, that it attracted the imagination of novelist Louis Bayard, whose latest book, Roosevelt’s Beast, takes the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition as its starting point and backdrop – and finds its two Roosevelts separately longing for the whole mess to be over. Roughing it in the field prompts Kermit to experience a “longing for bacon” stronger than he’s ever known:

Not just any bacon, but the kind he and his brothers used to eat on camping trips. Three or four times a summer, they’d row with Father to the same secluded neck off Oyster Bay, and as the sun fell, they’d make a driftwood fire and fry up a rasher of bacon. And whether it was because of the romance of their situation or the exertion of rowing four miles, bacon had never tasted as good. Nor would again.

A similar longing is also infiltrating the stray thoughts of Colonel Roosevelt, who’s portrayed in Roosevelt’s Beast as a complicated combination of fading bodily strength and purifying personal tenacity. The Colonel began the expedition weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, but when Kermit’s reminiscences start, the old man is suffering infection and malaria-like symptoms under which he’s bearing up with characteristic stoicism – although he’s not above the occasional admission:

“I dreamed of home last night.”

“Yes?”

“The way it looks now, I mean. Early April. Almost shocking how clear everything was. The robins, the meadowlarks. Maple buds, red as I’ve ever seen them. And there was your mother, out in some meadow, not ours – someone’s. She was gathering wildflowers and bloodroot, and there were patches of snow all around her, but she wore no gloves. She had a … very particular color to her cheeks.” The old man paused. “She never saw me. Never even turned her head.”

As the expedition progresses, Bayard interweaves the rich – and dark – history of the Roosevelt family into Kermit’s reflections on the increasing disasters around him. The larger-than-life character of the Colonel is a perennial temptation to novelists, so it’s all the more fascinating here how richly complex is Kermit’s personality, full of long-marinated self-doubts:

Melancholy had crawled into his pores while he was still in his bassinet and had dogged his steps ever since, had turned him into one of those odd children, palely loitering, shunning talk. “The boy with the white head and the black heart,” that’s what his own mother had called him, and he had accepted both judgments.

But Bayard isn’t content simply to re-tell the story of the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition in fictive terms; as with his previous (and uniformly enjoyable) forays into historical fiction, he adds a plot-line that borders on the fantastic. A hidden tribe named the Cintra Larga kidnaps both Roosevelts and threatens to kill them if they don’t use their renowned hunting skills to track down a mysterious beast that’s been preying on their members, a beast who wreaks horrifying damage but leaves no tracks. This is more than just a killer animal, as the Roosevelts quickly discover when they come across one of its victims – in this case a jaguar so violently eviscerated that the violence seems to be the point:

To Kermit’s eye, there was an element of terrible mockery, as though the Beast wished only to show the emptiness of this jaguar, of every living thing. A life hadn’t been taken, it had been erased.

Bayard does a very touching job of capturing the ways in which the mystery begins to appeal to the Colonel quite beyond the mere question of his own survival. This is a Theodore Roosevelt who’s still mechanically fond of the bully gesture, but who’s lapsed a little into caricature and perhaps knows it:

“Well, my boy,” said the Colonel, “I am happy to report – or it may be I am ashamed to report – that my time as police commissioner left me with a strong predilection for crime scenes and what may be gleaned therefrom. To wit,” he continued, with an upward thrust of finger, “we have a crime. We have a victim. Now what else may we say with any degree of certainty?”

The ability to pull of this kind of multi-layered historical confection successfully is rare in novelists. Consciously or not, most historical novelists opt for the safer waters of barely-reconstituted factual recitation. All the more reason Bayard’s long sojourn in the genre is a pleasing thing. Roosevelt’s Beast should be savored.