American history, biographies, book reviews, Patricia O'Toole, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Theodore Roosevelt
“When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House” by Patricia O’Toole was published in 2005. She teaches writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts and is the author of a biography of Henry Adams (a 1991 Pulitzer Prize finalist) as well as “Money and Morals in America: A History.”
As its title suggests, this book covers the last decade of Roosevelt’s life – the restive post-presidential years of a man unable to really relax or retire. For Roosevelt, these were years of drama, excitement and deep frustration; for O’Toole’s audience they are consistently fast-paced and fascinating.
Published five years before the final installment of Edmund Morris’s three-volume series (and covering virtually the same material), O’Toole’s book never met with the same popularity or success as “Colonel Roosevelt.” This is partly attributable to the fact that even Morris’s third volume hardly stands alone – it requires his first two volumes to create a full sense of anticipation. O’Toole’s book, without a series lead-in, had no natural audience other than impatient fans of Morris’s then-incomplete series.
Yet there is much to admire about “When Trumpets Call.” It reviews the major events of Roosevelt’s post-presidency in a descriptive, consistently engaging and easy-going manner. Beginning with his African safari, the reader is treated to a narrative style that is both straightforward and unpretentious and which proves clever and engaging. Her style also reminds the reader that she is principally a writer and not a stuffy, highbrow historian.
Despite the book’s focus on Roosevelt’s last years, O’Toole does not assume the reader is intimately familiar with TR. In its early pages she reviews Roosevelt’s first fifty years, capturing salient features of his incredibly eventful life prior to his “retirement.” In fewer than two-dozen pages she provides what may be the best brief review of Roosevelt’s life that I’ve ever encountered.
Throughout her book, O’Toole is frequently critical of Roosevelt – exposing rather than hiding his flaws. But her overall assessment is extremely fair and well-balanced. And much to her credit, she is able to explain complicated situations quite clearly. Two events relating to Taft’s presidency, which remained murky and slightly bewildering for me after reading previous biographies, were explained with unparalleled clarity.
Although O’Toole mined letters and diary entries from many of TR’s contemporaries in search of new material it is not clear she adds much to the understanding of Roosevelt’s life. But she does manage to tell a mostly-familiar story in a new and altogether engaging way. And while this book lacks penetrating insight and analysis, it provides an abundance of clever observations and pithy one-liners.
To my surprise, Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, is not particularly closely covered. But the last one-fourth of the book is very nearly less about TR than his sons and their service during World War I. This is where O’Toole’s story most clearly covers untrampled ground – and where the reader begins to marvel that a story about TR’s life could possibly manage to appropriately veer away from TR himself.
Overall, “When Trumpets Call” is a lively, engaging and fast-paced review of the ten years of Roosevelt’s life following his departure from the White House. While not as serious or scholarly as Edmund Morris’s volume covering the same period, this is a story very well told and clearly designed to convey the crux of every major moment. While it fails to uncover any hidden mysteries about TR or pass along great judgments of the man, it provides an interesting perspective of his life and rarely fails to entertain.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars