Book Review: A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children

If you are at all familiar with me or this blog, you have figured out that I am a pretty big Theodore Roosevelt fan. Last year, our county library had their annual book sale, and I bought every biography on TR that I could find. I planned to start them in January as there were already some other books I was reading that needed to be finished. My original plan was to read a biography once a month, but unfortunately my Masters of Divinity quickly got in the way of my personal reading, and so, I just finished my first Roosevelt bio for the year.

I was so excited about reading A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. It was my first pick of the year, which I began on January 1. It was not quite what I expected. Let me point out what I enjoyed, then what I was not quite thrilled about, and then I will end on a high note.

First, if you aren’t familiar with the term “Bully,” it was something that Roosevelt used like we would use “awesome” or “fantastic,” so it doesn’t mean one who pushes others around or beats someone up. That being said. . . The actual biography in this book was not at all bad. Joan Paterson Kerr, who wrote the biographical essay (80 pages), did an excellent job writing the highlights of TR’s life. For anyone who isn’t too familiar with the 26th President, but doesn’t want to wade into the waters of a more well-known bio, like Edmund Morris’s trilogy, this would be the one I would recommend. My favorite story she told of the president was when Roosevelt went up into the attic to play with his children and their friends. One young boy turned out the lights and TR banged his head on a board. He chided the children and went down to clean the blood off his forehead. When he returned, he found the boy (Looker) who turned off the lights, stuffed into a trunk with the others sitting on it. Roosevelt could hear the fear from within the trunk and ordered the children off it. “‘Suddenly the lid opened,’ Looker recalled, “and TR looked down into my face. He was quick with his handkerchief, too, wiping my face, and almost as quick to say, “He’s broken out in a sweat! The moth-balls have got into his eyes, and may them water!” This he said, to explain his wiping away the tears which I thought was fine of him,'” (pp 79-80). I think that was fine of him as well.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book is Roosevelt’s letters to his children. In all transparency, I have not read any of Roosevelt’s letters outside this book, however, I have read much that he has written. I was hoping for some sage, fatherly advice about life or decision-making. If that is what you are seeking then you won’t find it in these letters. However, if you are looking for something to humanize the “old lion” legend that is Teddy Roosevelt, this is the book you want.  He talks about various sports, finding or receiving new pets, the death of other pets, horse-back riding, and many, many other subjects. Since I was hoping for something different, I was quite disappointed in what I received. So reader beware; know what it is you want.

However, as I stated, I want to end on a high note, as Kerr did. At the end of the book, in the Epilogue, Ms. Kerr gave a one page bio sketch of each of TR’s children, mainly dealing with their adult life, and what they accomplished or how they died. While one could easily Google this information, I enjoyed Kerr’s quick summary. It closed out the book nicely.

All in all, the book was well-written, and quite interesting. I gave it three stars on good-reads. The book itself is 255 pages, not including the acknowledgements. Published by Random House in 1995, with the Foreward by the David McCullough, the biographical sketch would be recommended to a TR newbie, but the letters themselves may be too mundane for one who is not at least moderately interested in reading his own words. Again, I could find no sage advice; nothing to live by, thus nothing like what one may come to expect from Roosevelt. Thus, I would recommend checking out the book from a library or Overdrive, but reading only the bio sketch of both the President at the beginning and the children at the end.

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