As a writer/ventriloquist, Charyn has written works “by” Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson, productions in which the audience can occasionally see the performer’s mouth move. Teddy is a fraught choice for biographical treatment these days, a trustbusting conservationist who was also a big-game hunter with a dubious view of racial equality, appearing almost buffoonish behind his pince-nez and buck teeth. But Charyn’s empathic first-person strategy keeps the tone sprightly positive, undercutting the braggadocio with paradoxical self-deprecation. On the celebrated charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, for example, Teddy loses his eyeglasses and can’t seem to locate one of the many extra pairs that have been sewn into his uniform. He is rescued by an aide with yet another spare pair.
Yet he is, undeniably, a marvel. As a little boy, he makes himself expert at imitating birdsong and keeps a seal skull and other artifacts in the malodorous “Teedie Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” in his bedroom. As an adult, he is “part cowpoke, part politician.” Perhaps most telling is his infatuation with a pet cougar named Josephine. “Ya-ha-hawww!”
MAD BLOOD STIRRING
By Simon Mayo
386 pp. Pegasus. $25.95.
The War of 1812, bookended by the American Revolution and the Civil War, usually disappears in their shadow, so it’s instructive as well as entertaining to find an ambitious novel set at the close of that conflict. A truce has been declared, yet American sailors find themselves still trapped in Dartmoor, a vicious den of a prison in Devonshire, England. Wicked cold grips the place in the winter of 1814, and a smallpox epidemic decimates the population. The plot of “Mad Blood Stirring” grows from a kernel of historical truth — Mayo provides a full bibliography, in case there’s any doubt — but his book dazzles not so much as fact than as fiction.
Thousands of sailors crowd seven cellblocks, one of which is reserved exclusively for African-Americans. There the Dartmoor Amateur Dramatic Company devotes itself to performing the plays of Shakespeare. Swashbuckling direction comes courtesy of a figure known as King Dick, who asserts with unchallengeable authority that “Shakespeare was black.” “Romeo and Juliet” is under production, and on the boards an astonished audience will find not only a hazel-eyed Habakkuk (Habs) Snow as Romeo but, in the role of Juliet, Joe Hill, “the most handsome, most righteous, most blackest white boy in the land.” Danger surrounds their onstage kiss — it is, in fact, forbidden by the authorities, who, in spite of the British naval tradition of “rum, sodomy and the lash,” have executed numerous men for “buggery.”
As Shakespeare suggests elsewhere, the course of true love never did run smooth. High drama follows when Habs and Joe fall hard in love on the verge of a devastating prison riot that threatens to tear them apart.