Mornings on Horseback is about the world of the young Theodore Roosevelt. It is the story of a remarkable little boy, seriously handicapped by recurrent and nearly fatal attacks of asthma, and his struggle to manhood: an amazing metamorphosis seen in the context of the very uncommon household (and rarefied social world) in which he was raised.
His father is the first Theodore Roosevelt, "Greatheart," a figure of unbounded energy, enormously attractive and selfless, a god in the eyes of his small, frail namesake. His mother, Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, is a Southerner and celebrated beauty, but also considerably more, which the book makes clear as never before. There are sisters Anna and Corinne, brother Elliott (who becomes the father of Eleanor Roosevelt), and the lovely, tragic Alice Lee, Teddy Roosevelt's first love. And while such disparate figures as Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, and Senator Roscoe Conkling play a part, it is this diverse and intensely human assemblage of Roosevelts, all brought to vivid life, which gives the book its remarkable power.
The book spans seventeen years -- from 1869 when little "Teedie" is ten, to 1886 when, as a hardened "real life cowboy," he returns from the West to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and begin anew, a grown man, whole in body and spirit. The story does for Teddy Roosevelt what Sunrise at Campobello did for FDR -- reveals the inner man through his battle against dreadful odds.
Like David McCullough's The Great Bridge, also set in New York, this is at once an enthralling story, with all the elements of a great novel, and a penetrating character study. It is brilliant social history and a work of important scholarship, which does away with several old myths and breaks entirely new ground. For the first time, for example, Roosevelt's asthma is examined closely, drawing on information gleaned from private Roosevelt family papers and in light of present-day knowledge of the disease and its psychosomatic aspects.
At heart it is a book about life intensely lived...about family love and family loyalty...about courtship and childbirth and death, fathers and sons...about winter on the Nile in the grand manner and Harvard College...about gutter politics in washrooms and the tumultuous Republican Convention of 1884...about grizzly bears, grief and courage, and "blessed" mornings on horseback at Oyster Bay or beneath the limitless skies of the Badlands. "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough," Roosevelt once wrote. It is the key to his life and to much that is so memorable in this magnificent book.