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'Hunting With Teddy' is a must-read

Mike Levy died on March 20. I feel this loss deeply as Mike was exceptionally kind to me. He helped me from the time I first began writing this column until just a few weeks before his death. His patience with me was limitless. For example, he tried his best to make a photographer out of me and, despite his failure, he never lost his temper. He let me do that with myself, a technique I recognize as that of a great teacher.

Most News readers think of Levy as a representative of hunters and anglers because he edited the Outdoor Page, but he was far more than that. His interests were widespread and far from superficial. I recall, for example, a column he wrote about specialized radios. Because I was in the market for one, I followed up with my own research and soon gave up. None of the so-called experts in the field told me that they knew only half as much as Mike did. The radio I bought based on his recommendation remains a prized possession.

Now Mike has left us all a present, a reminder of his gifts as a writer, honed over his years beginning as a Wall Street Journal staff member and continuing as a reporter and editor for this newspaper. During his final years he focused his general interest in history and his particular interest in Theodore Roosevelt to write a novel about our former president's interesting early years.

The book's title is "Hunting With Teddy" and it covers Roosevelt's years before the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo on Sept. 6, 1901, made TR this nation's president.

This is biographical country that has been explored before, most recently in Edmund Morris' 1979 Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award winner, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." Interested in TR, I plowed partway through that book. After a couple of hundred pages, still less than halfway through, I finally quit because I felt that an interesting story was being drowned in insufferable detail.

In refreshing contrast, I find Mike's book straightforward and great fun to read. He has framed Roosevelt's life in a simple story and he gives us a true sense of that story by means of a series of incidents in the life of a fictitious assistant.

At the outset the narrator, Gregor Burns, is a 15-year-old orphan Irish immigrant working on his uncle's ranch in the Dakotas. By default, he is assigned as a helper for an Eastern dude, Roosevelt, who has come to hunt the already essentially extirpated buffalo. Over the course of the novel, Burns becomes a cowboy working on the ranch TR has bought; then, as working ranches prove unprofitable, a trusted assistant back in the East; until he finally breaks away from the chief to make his own way as a photographer after the Cuban invasion.

The title of this book will certainly attract many of those in the hunting community. I suggest, however, that it is a book that should be read by us tree-huggers, including those who oppose hunting. The book doesn't pull any punches: it certainly doesn't idolize TR and it raises appropriate conservation issues that remain with us today but were scarcely thought of a hundred years ago. Few minds will be changed, but I hope that some will gain a bit more appreciation for how one of their genuine hunter-enemies, conservation-heroes thought.

Here are a couple of passages from the book:

"All you could see, when Roosevelt came to our campfire, was a set of huge teeth shining like lamplight. And he talked. How he talked! Of conserving the animals he so ardently sought to kill. For man to continue hunting, he must nurture the game he hunted."

And about hunting deer from a boat in the Adirondacks: "The guide would hear or maybe see them, unshield his lamp, and as the deer stood -- mesmerized by the light -- the sport would kill one. But the boss never liked jacklighting, and I do not think either he or Mr. Remington ever did it -- but if they really needed meat they likely would have."

Homework assignment for conservationists: read this book.