‘A Splendid Savage’ follows man’s improbable, insatiable life

“A Splendid Savage” by Steve Kemper (Norton, 448 pages, $27.95)

Armchair adventurers may find no better book this season than Steve Kemper’s exhilarating biography of Frederick Russell Burnham, a relative unknown who popped up in seemingly half the major world events of his long life (1861-1947).

As Kemper writes, Burnham’s story “seems almost too far-fetched for credibility, as if an old newsreel got mashed up with a Saturday matinee thriller.” The extent of Burnham’s travels, the number of places he lived, the number of gold mines he prospected, the armed conflicts for which he volunteered his services as an expert scout all provide gist for a narrative that, like Burnham, never stays long in one place.

Burnham was born in Minnesota. When he was an infant his family was swept up in the Dakota Conflict. By age 12 he was working as a Western Union rider in Southern California, honing qualities — strength, endurance, wilderness knowledge — that shaped his destiny. From Indian wars in Arizona to the Boer War in South Africa, Burnham made himself indispensable to military leaders with his fearless ability to track an enemy night after night, endure extreme hardship and gather crucial intelligence.

An insatiable prospector for gold and silver, Burnham made and lost his fortune countless times. Kemper doesn’t ignore Burnham’s racist views, but places them in the context of an era when they mirrored those of such prominent men as Theodore Roosevelt.

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