Friday, March 4, 2016

A Splendid Savage

From the author of A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa comes the biography of Frederick Russel Burnham, frontiersmen, scout, prospector, husband and father. Steve Kemper has received high acclaim for his portrayal of the explorer in his novel A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham, including reviews by the “Wall Street Journal” and “Outside Online,” where the article “Frederick Russell Burnham Is the Most Interesting Man in the World” was the beginning of my journey around the world with the famous scout.

From his adventures in the American West during the settling of the frontier and the Gold Rush, his search for Montezuma, to his role in the events that unfolded in South Africa at the turn of the century, the nonfiction book reads like an action thriller. Full of daredevil stunts literally the stuff of stories, the book was a surprising page-turner for me considering I don’t often read biographies.

Source: here

While Burnham is famous as “the great American scout” for his in regards to his extensive knowledge of tracking and woodcraft, I found it fascinating to read about the roots of his outdoor skillset which were learned studying (and later tracking) the Apaches in Arizona while he was still a teenager. With the uncanny ability to apply his knowledge to environments from the deserts of the American West to the African veldt, Burnham was just at home in the Klondike as he was in Mexico in the early 1900s… and high-society London!

Burnham and his 1910 discovery, the Esperanza Stone (source: here)

A list of the scout’s influences and acquaintances features Presidents Wiliam Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, to some of the wealthiest men of the time including the Guggenheim brothers and Cecil Rhodes. His expertise motivated friend Robert Baden-Powell to found the Boy Scouts, and inspired Roosevelt’s initiative “the Rough Riders.” Meanwhile his accomplishments read like a highlight reel of a history book: protecting President William Howard Taft from a possible assassination, discovering and marking hundreds of gold, silver, coal and other mines, more than 100 behind-enemy-lines scouting trips during the Boer Wars and finally striking it rich with the discovery of oil in California. He even had an archnemesis – the Boer scout and German WWI spy, Duquesne.

Cover of Burnham's novel "Scouting on Two Continents" with illustration by Baden-Powell

Burnham was a series of contradictions in his attitudes and actions regarding race, politics, nature and family. Kemper does a great job of delving into the motivations behind the racism of the day yet giving an honest account of the scout’s deeds (and misdeeds). Incredibly relevant in today’s world of religious and racial division, the author provided valuable insight into the controversial colonialism of the time. And yet we are taken on sidetracks such as the U.S. Army Camel Corps, and the movement to introduce indigenous-African animals including bushbucks, klipspringers, springboks, dik-diks and duikers (and some more familiar ones such as zebras and hippos) to the American tableau. Finally we gain a window into Burnham’s relationship with his wife Blanche, surviving even the loss of two of their three children and the scouts relentless wanderlust.

Burnham and his wife Blanche at their CA ranch near Sequoia NP

This book appealed to me on several levels, and was disappointing in none. The theme of scouting, the persistent education on world history and the adventure of a lifetime – if you wish to read one non-fiction book this year, I heartily recommend “A Splendid Savage.” 


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