Friday, July 25, 2008

REVIEW: Mornings on Horseback

Title: Mornings on Horseback
Author: David McCullough
Rating: A-

First Line: In the year 1869, when the population of New York City had reached nearly a million, the occupants of 28 East 20th Street, a five-story brownstone, numbered six, exclusive of the servants.

Gone are the days when the only things I knew about Theodore Roosevelt were: (1) the Teddy bear was named for him, (2) he was responsible for the Panama Canal, and (3) he was the source of one of my favorite quotes--"Speak softly and carry a big stick." Last year I read Candice Millard's excellent River of Doubt about the last years of Theodore Roosevelt's life. Now I've read David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback about Theodore Roosevelt's childhood. How do I feel about our twenty-sixth president? I greatly admire the man.

McCullough's book takes "Thee" from the age of ten through the age of twenty-seven. As a child, he suffered terribly from recurrent and nearly fatal attacks of asthma. He was not expected to live. His father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, had other plans. One of the strengths of this award-winning book is that we are shown the incredible Roosevelt clan entire. We see how the man who became president could draw on the love, support and strength of those around him.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the family's first trip to Europe, taken in part to get Thee to a better climate for his asthma. Reading the parts of his boyhood diary in which he wrote so enthusiastically about the Swiss Alps, I could see that young boy's wide-eyed wonder. Can you imagine how I felt when, later in the book, they discovered that he could barely see thirty feet in front of his own nose and desperately needed glasses? Putting my near-sighted self in his place I can imagine how much more those glasses would have added to his enjoyment of the Alps. The difference would have been incalculable.

Thee finally started coming into his own when he went to Harvard. He was the typical teenager, with his enthusiasms and affectations, and in some circles he was a laughing stock, but he carried on, keeping sight on the lessons he had learned from his father. Graduated from Harvard, he married the one true love of his life and began a career in politics. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had weathered many tragedies and chosen his life's path.

McCullough brings all this to life and makes it crystal clear just how important a role Theodore Roosevelt's family had in shaping him as a human being and a man. The only part that dragged a bit for me was when Roosevelt began to make his mark in politics. I felt as if I needed a scorecard to keep the political Black Hats and White Hats straight, but the one vision that stayed square before me was that of a young boy, high in the Alps, gazing at the world spread out in front of him and grinning that famous grin.


  1. The only David McCullough I've read is *John Adams* (pre-mini series, I really read it!).

    I posted about him back in May, after he spoke at BC commencement.

    I'd like to read another of his books; I was looking at *The Great Bridge*, but your review makes me move my wish list choice to *Mornings on Horseback*. Great review; thanks!

  2. The other McCullough book I've read was Truman, which I really enjoyed. I'm glad you liked my review!


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