The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times

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Release Date: 
January 7, 2019
Reviewed by: 

“This fictional biography, as narrated by the subject himself, has the fascinating flavor of those infamous but sought-after 19th century dime novels.”

When Theodore Roosevelt was a child, he suffered from a breathing complaint so bad his father—“a merchant prince who might’ve stepped out of Christian allegory”—would   wrap him in blankets, put him in the family carriage, and take him for drives through “The Badlands” of Manhattan’s Upper West Side so the night air would clear his lungs.

Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, taught his five-year-old son to smoke cigars, to “inhale precious air with the help of a fine Havana during my worst asthma attacks.”

Somehow, “Teedy,” or TR, as he was known, managed to survive this dubious treatment to begin an interest staying with him throughout his life: zoology.

“I started the ‘Teedy Roosevelt Museum of Natural History’ in my room, collecting whatever specimens I could. My museum stank up the house and our chambermaid refused to clean my quarters until the museum was relocated to a storage bin in the back hall.”

From this dramatic beginning, home-schooled Teedy goes to college (“Harvard was my kindergarten”) then returns to New York where he horrifies his family by immersing himself in fighting the city’s corrupt government (“Roosevelts don’t romp around in the mud of politics”). He also marries Alice Lee, whom he meets through a Harvard classmate.

Soon Teedy (“Mr. Jane-Dandy, the Manhattan Rube, the youngest lad in the State Assembly”) and his colleagues are bringing about reforms. The opposition tries violence and blackmail to stop him. Teedy survives it all, but it takes a personal tragedy to drive him from the state.

In one day, Teedy gains a child and loses his wife and his mother, as daughter Alice is born, his wife dies from Bright’s disease and his mother of typhoid fever, all within 24 hours. Leaving his infant daughter in his sister Bamie’s care (“I cannot abide to look at Baby Lee”), he goes to his ranch in North Dakota, to fight Indians and outlaws, and return two years later to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, against his family’s wishes. (“Widowers don’t remarry; Roosevelts don’t remarry.”)

Marry he does, however, and weathers the feud between wife and sister over who will care for his home and his daughter. It is during this time he becomes New York’s police commissioner and faces the scandal left behind by brother Elliott who dies alcoholic and drug-addicted, with two mistresses and an illegitimate son.

Then comes the war with Cuba. With the Maine at the bottom of Havana Harbor, the US retaliates, and Teedy, now Vice President of the United States, suggests a mounted regiment. To his surprise, he’s made its commanding officer.

“Having never been a soldier, I did not have the combat readiness to train cowboy cavaliers. That would’ve dee-lighted the War Department.”

Train them, he does, with the aid of a cougar cub named Josephine, who returns to the U.S. with Teedy at war’s end, but Josephine can’t stay at his family home when he becomes governor of New York. Placed in the Bronx Zoological Gardens, she dies of a broken heart after being separated from her beloved human. She’s given a Rough Riders’ funeral.

“The trumpeter from L Troop and fifty troopers . . . we all clutched hands and performed a jig around Josephine’s grave, like cavaliers hopping near a fire at the end of a roundup.”

An autobiographer must choose his ending wisely, and Teedy draws his story to a close as he becomes the 26th president, courtesy of an assassin’s bullet, going into those duties as he’s done every other adventure—in the “Roosevelt way.”

“I would feel my freedom slip away, like the silent pull of a strait jacket. Deep within my throat, I let out the Rough Rider rip, ‘Ya-ha-haww’!”

This fictional biography, as narrated by the subject himself, has the fascinating flavor of those infamous but sought-after 19th century dime novels. Indeed Theodore Roosevelt’s life seems one great exaggeration even without fictional embellishment. Told with humor in the slightly stilted but grandiose language of the era, it depicts the life of a man many considered born privileged, a man handicapped by ill health, bad eyesight, and extreme personal adversity to become an adventurer, a reformer, and eventually attain the highest position in this country.

As in any life story, only the highlights can be touched upon, making the story slightly episodic, but the moments Teedy chooses are those touching him the most. There’s the adventure of tracking bad men through the Dakotas, the horrors of the Cuban War and the concern for those men who can’t adjust to civilian life afterward, as well as Roosevelt’s attempts to solve the plight of the many children left orphaned or destitute in New York City, evidenced by his meeting one later in life as one of his Rough Riders.

With an included Cast of Characters—and what characters they are!—listing almost everyone mentioned in the novel, and authentic archival photographs, The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King would be a rousing tale of adventure even if it wasn’t based on fact.