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Reviewed for the Washington Post by Mary Doria Russell (March 17, 2014).
When Theodore Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, he did so as one of the most effective presidents in U.S. history. He curbed the power of big corporations and worked for fair labor laws; he signed into law The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act; he pushed for better care for dependent children, more or less invented the modern American Navy, and appointed three Supreme Court justices.
At the end of his presidency, he was only 51 and immensely popular. Four years later, he broke his promise not to seek a third term and campaigned for the office again, this time as a third party candidate. He not only lost the election, he was bitterly criticized by many former supporters who blamed him for splitting the Republican party and getting Democrat Woodrow Wilson elected instead.
It must have seemed like a good time to get out of Dodge.
Still famously energetic despite the presence of a would-be assassin’s bullet lodged in his chest, in 1913 Roosevelt accepted an invitation to join the Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon in an expedition to the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they hoped to trace all the way to the Amazon River.
That hellish journey was described by Roosevelt himself in his 1914 memoir Through the Brazilian Wilderness and was recently recounted in Candice Millard’s River of Doubt (Anchor, 2006). Within weeks, T.R. was so debilitated by infection and fever, he had to be cared for night and day by his son Kermit, whose devotion, physical courage and sheer determination saved his father’s life.
“This whole misbegotten adventure,” with all its miseries and hardship, forms the basis of Louis Bayard’s new novel Roosevelt’s Beast.Imagined from Kermit’s point of view, the irrationality of the trek is clear. “A small band of bedraggled white men, outnumbered by both their porters and their trunks, hustling northward down a twisting river of black water, with an air of deep intention. Looking for something, but what?”
The idea was to put Amazonia’s terra incognita on the map, but there was a terrible price to pay for this knowledge. Men died, and Bayard describes the toll on survivors with wonderful dry wit. “With his fingers, [Kermit] interrogated the sores on each of his legs: all garden-variety bruises that, through infection, had acquired ideas above their station.”
The plot arrives when – wet, sick, starving, exhausted and lost – Kermit and his father become separated from their comrades. They are taken prisoner by a band of Brazilian natives whose prior contact with the world beyond the forest is limited to an encounter with a missionary whose daughter still lives among them. She tells the two Americans they’ll be permitted to leave when and if they can find and kill a beast that leaves no spoor, apart from the eviscerated, flayed, fleshless bodies of its victims.
What follows is a mystery in the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition, had Holmes and Watson been masochistic enough to volunteer for this dreadful trek. Consider this exchange between T.R. and his son Kermit.
“So we know our Beast has the strength of at least two jaguars… What else can we say?”
“I will go you one better and answer, Nothing else. An act of great savagery took place on this very spot, and yet the perpetrator of the act left virtually no trace. It made no cry and left no tracks. I repeat: It left no tracks.”
If that kind of dialog appeals to you, the middle of Roosevelt’s Beast will be fun. It’s a whatdunnit, not a whodunnit, and I won’t reveal the solution, except to tell you that Mr. Bayard calls his novel “a psychological fantasy built out of historical events.”
For me, the bracketing psychology was far more engaging than the central fantasy. Bayard gives us a compassionate, unsentimental portrait of Kermit Roosevelt: a son who would forever live in the shadow of a colossal father, a man who struggled with familial depression that seemed darker for its contrast with T.R.’s relentless, sunny optimism and blithe self-confidence.
And then there is this throwaway paragraph about Cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. “Until this moment, Kermit had never considered the possibility of Eleanor having a father. Or a mother. He had assumed that she’d come into the world exactly as she was now: tall, clumsy, unparented, a train of pity dragging after her.” To my disappointment, there was nothing more of the future First Lady, but moments like that – seen in flashbacks to Kermit’s childhood – salt the fantasy and kept me interested as I began to understand the title’s clever intent.
I came to this novel knowing nothing about Kermit Roosevelt, but Bayard’s portrayal was memorable. Weeks after reading the book, I still can’t help wishing that Mr. Bayard had taken us on Kermit’s real journey as that resourceful, courageous, accomplished man made his way from his father’s shadow to the self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended a remarkable, if tragic life. And if Mr. Bayard ever writes about Eleanor Roosevelt, I’m in.