Title: The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History
Author: Darrin Lunde
Published: 2016, Crown Publishers, New York
Rating: 3/5 stars
Summary: The Naturalist recounts Theodore Roosevelt’s contributions to the study of natural history and the beginnings of efforts to preserve nature, animals, and natural environments – i.e. wilderness – for its own sake. The book begins with Roosevelt’s childhood and early fascination with animals, the outdoors, and ornithology, and ends with his monumental African safari. It describes and explains how his sickliness as a child and his father’s attitude towards the necessity of physical as well as mental fitness and masculinity drove him to exert, improve, and remake himself through outdoor adventure. As a biography, it is not comprehensive, as it focuses narrowly on Roosevelt’s engagement with hunting and natural history, and Roosevelt enthusiasts will likely learn little new. Its relatively short length and conversational style make it a good choice for those interested in either Roosevelt or the early days of natural history and who have not read extensively on either subject already.
Thoughts: The author is collection manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and so is extremely qualified to write on this subject. From the introduction, it seems that he casts himself as a sort of kindred spirit with the subject of his book, which the reader may or may not interpret as a good thing. Many modern readers may be put off by the antiquated attitudes towards animals and hunting, some of which the author does not condemn as strongly as some might like. Lengthy descriptions of the preparation of animal and bird skins for preservation, while detailed and interesting, may distress some readers. Overall, an interesting and accessible book about the changing national attitude towards nature and environmentalism as it shifted gradually from aggressive exploitation to a desire to preserve and protect.
What I liked: I enjoyed reading about the beginnings of natural history museums and natural history as a science. This is the first book I’ve read about T. Roosevelt, and I also enjoyed learning about his youth and his incredible determination, energy, and ability to remake himself and accomplish the seemingly impossible things to which he set his mind.
What I didn’t like: I personally disliked reading about the hunting and killing of so many animals, especially the destruction of the buffalo. I wouldn’t say I’m especially sentimental, but I did find the idea that studying things justifies destroying them to be an example of human arrogance. Still, just because I didn’t like those parts doesn’t mean they weren’t important or well written.
Verdict: I liked more than I disliked about the book. Well written, accessible, detailed, and interesting. Probably one to borrow from a library rather than buy. A solid 3 stars.
*** I received a copy of this book from the Blogging for Books program at no cost in exchange for an honest review.