Spring 2011 Books


The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush
By Howard Blum

This quintessentially American story is packed with larger-than-life characters straight out of a John Ford western: Soapy Smith, a scoundrel and con man, whose great goal is to become rich; the former cowboy Charlie Siringo, who hates the range and yearns to become a famous writer; prospector George Carmack, who seeks to follow in his father’s footsteps and find gold. All three share outlandish ambitions; quite improbably, all three come to share other things as well in the Yukon. With its focus on the Old West of the American imagination—replete with shoot-outs, marauding Indians, and a frontier portrayed as “unruly and untamed”—the book veers dangerously close to cliché. But Blum manages just barely to stay out of that worn territory, weaving a rich tale that follows these three men who ended up in Alaska in the 1890s. Floor of Heaven’s opening section sets the stage, depicting the restless trio in their unhappy, pre-Alaskan days. Part two carries the story into Alaska and describes Carmack’s discovery of gold, which set off the Yukon gold rush. The concluding section brings the three stories together. Along this entertaining journey, the reader will revisit the final years of the Old West and a frontier that had moved north to Alaska. (Crown, 432 pages, $26)

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West
By Roger L. Di Silvestro

A contender among the bantamweights of history’s colossi, TR was justly the subject of a great biography in Edmund Morris’s magisterial, definitive, and superbly readable trilogy. But the bibliography continues to grow with smaller volumes that fruitfully focus on facets of this dynamo’s life. So be it with Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, whose author, a senior editor at National Wildlife, worked as a lad on a ranch in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a realm kindred to the vast barrens of the Dakota Territory, and knew a life that resonated with the once-dwindling frontier.

Roosevelt, a wealthy New York Knickerbocker (descendant of the founding Dutch settlers), Harvard swell, and gentleman adventurer, first visited the untamed Badlands in 1883, several years after his sublimely happy marriage to lovely Alice Lee, for a little fresh air, exercise, and some blood sport. Shortly after his return home, his mother died of typhoid. Alice died of kidney failure only hours later, having just delivered a daughter, and TR nearly lost his mind in grief. Seeking solace—the “quest for recovery” of the subtitle—he returned to the Badlands for an indefinite escape.

Roosevelt eventually owned and worked three Dakota ranches, outriding, outworking, and outtalking the tough hombres of the Badlands. He could live off the land for days, riding about and finding game to kill. He went to the Badlands to kill bison while there were still some to kill, and he would gladly have been the man to shoot the last of the species and hang its head in his trophy hall at Sagamore Hill. But those were the mores of the day. TR was a man of his times, and his time in the Badlands was a moment of wild resurrection. (Walker & Company, 352 pages, $27)

Lincoln on War: Our Greatest Commander-in-Chief Speaks to America
Edited by Harold Holzer

Having led a company of militia (which saw no combat) in the Black Hawk War of 1832, Abraham Lincoln famously opposed the Mexican War as an arbitrary folly fomented by President Polk in a grab for power. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure.” Holzer writes persuasively that the future president in 1848 confronted “issues that are still resonating in American political discourse 150 years later: the legitimacy of preemptive war, executive authority in wartime.”

Lincoln approved, in his own words, “the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress” clearly and exclusively. Yet upon his election to the presidency, he seized various executive powers to lead the country through the crises of secession and war and to restore the Union.

Elsewhere Lincoln’s thinking evolved dramatically. This volume of excerpts shows him growing more sophisticated and persuasive as a communicator and more competent as a military man, perhaps the most able strategist ever to serve as commander in chief. Lincoln did not like war, but he willingly engaged in it—waged it, prosecuted it—to avoid a more evil possibility, the loss of the nation.

Lacing his selections with superb capsule commentaries, Holzer has included many of Lincoln’s great pronouncements on war and his peerless orations about the contexts and effects of the great conflict that defined his presidency and redefined America.

Holzer’s worthy and appropriate purpose—he has, after all, written nearly 40 books on Lincoln and the Civil War—is to offer a portrait of the Great Emancipator’s changing mind and mindset about war. Without beating the drum about it, he also celebrates champion composition from a time when great leaders wrote their own stuff. (Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $24.95)

Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall
Edited by Michael G. Long