Review — HUNTING TEDDY ROOSEVELT by James A. Ross

 

Hunting Teddy Roosevelt
by James A. Ross (Congo 1975-77)
Regal Publishing House
242 pages
2020
$9.49 (Kindle); $16.49 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67)

Ah, political machinations, financial shenanigans, international arm-twisting for war or peace, a plot to kill former president Teddy Roosevelt while he’s on an African safari. Crack open James A. Ross’s novel, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt, kick back, and settle down into a romp through a blend of history, true facts, fictional facts, and an ill-fated romance.

J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and William Randolph Hearst plot to keep the ex-president in faraway Africa for a year. Morgan wants TR off the political stage, permanently, so he can undo Roosevelt’s trust-busting laws that are a thorn in Morgan’s wallet. Carnegie wants to harness for world peace TR’s passion for anti-crime and anti-corruption, but without Teddy “Rough Rider” Roosevelt, who enjoys killing animals and fighting wars. Hearst wants the adventuresome TR abroad causing headlines so he can sell more newspapers.

Morgan does not want TR to run for a third term in 1912, so he arranges for an assassin to be slipped into Roosevelt’s safari security detail. Hearst sends a muckraking reporter to find her way onto the safari; she happens to be Roosevelt’s first teenage heartthrob, first kiss, and first heartbreak. As for Carnegie’s world peace, Roosevelt, while blundering around East Africa, which was being colonized by England and Germany, hatches a plan to stop WW I.

Ross neatly wraps the novel’s underlying subject of raw survival in politics, business, and colonization in a metaphor: Two scorpions face off on a man’s belly. The man is terrified but helpless, of becoming collateral damage, as the enemies battle to the death. The metaphor also works on another level: The man, the hired assassin, turns the winner scorpion into a weapon to kill Roosevelt, an ironic twist on Roosevelt’s quest to kill wild animals.

The female reporter kicked off the safari, finds ingenious ways to get back to Roosevelt’s side. The assassin, New York-bred and out of his depth in deep Africa, has the bedeviling problem of how to kill TR and make it look like an accident. There are no carriages to push the victim under, no dark alleys for a fatal mugging. And, he keeps inadvertently saving Roosevelt’s life from a gigantic snake or other perils. Roosevelt returns the favor by preventing the now trusted bodyguard from drowning or being eaten by a crocodile, whichever came first.

Nevertheless, the assassin persists in trying to murder TR, motivated by a personal grudge. Roosevelt, as New York City Police Commissioner, oversaw a campaign to rid the city of political and police corruption. The assassin’s brother, a city cop, was sent to prison as a sacrificial lamb to deflect attention from politically corrupt Tammany Hall. The brother would be released, as part of the deal with Morgan, when Roosevelt had been killed.

Morgan becomes impatient with the lack of results he expects. The real J.P. Morgan was a hard-nosed tycoon; the novel’s J.P. Morgan is a cold-hearted killer, who, as a competent CEO, brutally coerces an underlying to do the dirty work. He sends a second would-be assassin,exposeé a Wall Street scrivener, to kill Roosevelt. Morgan’s final order, Succeed or die.

Meanwhile, back in Africa, the idealistic reporter sends to Hearst an exposé of Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo, along with her TR headline stories. She admires Roosevelt, wants him to run for a third term, and continue his efforts to root out corruption, create and preserve national parks, and broker a European peace. He will not have the power to achieve those goals without the political position of the presidency. He must ally with Hearst, whose support he’d need to win the White House. Roosevelt and the journalist are at loggerheads, not over strategy, but over tactics. Roosevelt and Hearst shared a visceral dislike for each other.

Entwined throughout the narrative is the real-life relationship between Roosevelt and his son Kermit, who at nineteen medicates his depression with alcohol. How to help Kermit conquer the disease is a conundrum as formidable as any political challenge TR has faced. The father-son passages ring true of authentic parent-child love for each other.

One night, TR and the journalist, sharing a tree branch to be safe from prowling lions, discuss strategy and tactics, and consider the ember of their 30-year-old romance flickering back to flame. But the carnal transcends into Higher Purpose—get Teddy back to America and into the political ring.

Ross, a skilled storyteller, keeps the tale roiling along through the final chapters with savage hippos, blood-thirsty crocodiles, predatory bandits, a charge up a substitute San Juan Hill for a heroic rescue, a solo dash across the desert to Khartoum to send the story, the fates of Assassin 1 and Assassin 2, and an epilogue that would be good fiction, except it’s true–given artistic license with the dialogue.

Reading this well-crafted, smartly paced novel is like eating a bowl of salted peanuts—hard to stop.

Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books. His crime mystery, Stealing Fortune’s Brick, The Audacious Tea Heist, was published June 2020. His newest novel, Warrior Love, Silas Loves Lili Weirdly Lili Loves Silas will be released Spring 2021.

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  • James and Stephen:
    I greatly enjoyed hearing about the new book re TR. Did you come across Emperor Menelik’s gift of two lion cubs to the President in 1904? The 1st US diplomatic mission to Ethiopia was entrusted with getting the cubs to the United States. The RR from Addis Ababa to Djibouti was not yet completed, so the AA to Dire Dawa stretch was by foot or animal. Alas, one of the lion cubs died in transit, but one made it eventually to the National Zoo in DC. He was never given a name. The cub died after two years in captivity.

  • I had a different perspective on this book attached is a review from my blog http://www.rwandakenya.blogspot.com

    A review of Hunting for Teddy Roosevelt by James Ross, Regal House Publishing, 2020.

    This is an interestingly odd book. It is fiction intertwined with bits of real history. The basic premise comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari which he undertook in 1909 after finishing his second term as president. Roosevelt took the trip to escape from the pressures of politics and to reflect upon his decision not to seek a third term. All this comes out in the book. The fictional plot revolves around efforts to assassinate the ex-president and his uncanny ability to escape. The depiction of Roosevelt is believable, but other characters are not as well drawn.
    In reality on this safari Roosevelt did indeed slaughter thousands of animals purportedly at the request of the Smithsonian Institute which wanted specimens for its collection. Roosevelt’s actual recollections of hunting encounters are used to lead into various chapters. His son Elliot accompanies him (true) and they do have an odd (fictional) encounter with Paul von Lettow (a real German military officer who commanded the German army in East Africa during World War I). Other characters – journalist Maggie Ryan, various safari personnel, the assassin, etc. are all fictional.
    Although the story did move along satisfactorily, I became captivated by the errors, dissidences and leaps of credibility that abound in the book. Some misrepresentations can be attributed to the various characters, but most are the responsibility of the author. The book is fiction, of course, and the author is entitled to rearrange geography and cultures as desired or necessary for the story, but I found that such shortcomings substantially distracted from the gist of the tale. For example:
    Outlining the intended itinerary from the African highlands, to the Serengeti, to Mt. Kilimanjaro and then Lake Victoria, zig zags Kenya’s geography.
    Tuaregs are described as slavers in Sudan. In reality they live in the central Sahara, two thousand miles west.
    Roosevelt rode on the “railroad linking Nairobi to Lake Albert.” The rail line did pass through Nairobi, but it linked Mombasa to Lake Victoria.
    The Swahili word “pembe” was employed at least six times to refer to local alcoholic beverages. “Pembe” means horn or antlers. The correct word is “pombe.”
    TR is credited with staying on a sisal farm in the Aberdares. That area is much too cold and wet for sisal.
    “Faru” is used instead of “Kifaru” for rhino. Africans would have used the correct term.
    There are several references to the Congo Free State owned by King Leopold of Belgium. At the time of Roosevelt’s safari, the Congo had been taken over by the Belgian government as a colony.
    A lion hunt is described as “simba kuwinda” i.e. lion to hunt, correct would be “kuwinda simba” to hunt lion (object not subject).
    Author Ross puts the Samburu people from northern Kenya in Kamba country (just outside Nairobi). Also, it is proposed to resettle them from there to Muranga so to free arable land for white settlers. That is all wrong, the arid Athi Plains where the Samburu ostensibly lived were unsuitable for farming whereas Muranga is prime agricultural territory. The fact that Muranga, even then, was well populated by Kikuyu people is ignored. Later the author places the Kamba in Tanganyika. Why not just deal with the people who really lived there – the Kamba and Maasai people of the Athi/Amboseli area and the Chaga in Tanganyika
    On several occasions the author refers to “mimosa” trees and “fire” ants. There were no mimosa trees in Africa at the time. Fire ants is an American, not an African term.
    Author Ross describes the bandits encountered in Sudan over and over as Fulani. The Fulani people are pastoralists who live in the Sahael region of Africa south of the Sahara, thousands of miles west of the Sudan. Sudan has many indigenous groups that engaged in banditry and slavery, why import foreigners?
    At one point it is proposed to cross Lake Tanganyika from Kigoma (in German East Africa) to Kalemie, Congo. The town of Albertville, Congo was not renamed Kalemie until 1971. This is a grievous error for a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the Congo.
    Equally puzzling was a reference to the battleship Maine being sunk in the Philippines. Surely Teddy Roosevelt knew it was sunk in Cuba.
    The fact that atrocities were inflicted on natives of the Belgian Congo, including severing of hands when rubber collection quotas were not met, is a true theme reflected in the novel. However, at one-point starving and mutilated victims of such horrors are described as Tutsi and their persecutors Hutu. In actuality, Rwanda/Burundi, home of the Tutsi and Hutu, in 1909 were under the suzerainty of Germany, not Belgium. They were not victims of rubber exploitation. I thought this bit to be a gratuitous reference to genocide which would not occur for another eighty years.
    Finally, our intrepid heroes defied geography throughout the tome covering, by foot or horseback, hundreds or even thousands of miles in days. On their trek through northern Uganda into the Sudan, they pass just north of “Victoria Falls.” They might have been near Murchinson Falls, but Vic Falls were then and still are 2000 miles to the south.

    As noted above I enjoyed this novel as much as for the discrepancies as for the tale. However, for those not disturbed by the errors, it is a pleasant extrapolation of Roosevelt’s safari.

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