Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: "The River of Doubt" by Candice Millard

After an arduous and unsuccessful run for president in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was spent. He needed to get away. Never one to do things halfway, Roosevelt REALLY got away.

The next year, Roosevelt was on a boat heading to South America to explore the rain forest. The expedition, organized by Father John Zahm, would take Roosevelt and other participants onto several rivers to see wildlife and visit remote jungle areas. It promised to be an interesting trip, yet hardly a groundbreaking one.

But upon arriving in Brazil, an official asked Roosevelt a tantalizing question: "Why don't you go down an unknown river?" The question changed everything. Roosevelt, who craved the chance to be a "real" explorer, jumped at the opportunity.

The "River of Doubt," a wonderfully written book by Candice Millard, is the story of the 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition to explore a 1,000-mile river that was literally was not on any map. When the 22-man team set out, no one knew where the Rio da Duvida ("River of Doubt") would take them, how long they would be gone or what kind of dangers they would face.

As it turned out, the difficulties of the trip were far beyond what they had imagined. The men had to deal with disease, swarms of insects, snakes, hostile Indians, dwindling supplies of food, waterfalls and their own internal conflicts. Roosevelt nearly died and ... well, I don't want to give too much away. Like the River of Doubt itself, this book takes some surprising turns.

Millard leads the reader along step-by-step on the entire trip, beginning with its planning stages in the United States, helping you feel as if you are going along with the expedition. Unlike many survival stories, this one does not hinge on a single disastrous moment. There is no shipwreck, avalanche, or plane crash. Rather, we see scores of small flaws in the planning and execution of the trip, along with the extraordinary difficulties of travel, add up in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts style to cripple and hamper the expedition.

Millard details a fascinating cast of characters, including the vainglorious Father Zahm, Roosevelt's hard-working but reckless son Kermit, and various scientists and laborers. Some are strong and headstrong, some fearful, some lazy, and the interaction among them adds color and depth to the story. (Sort of like "Lost" on the Amazon.)

Of course, the main character is Theodore Roosevelt, my favorite president. This book illustrates many of his strengths - he is tough, fair-minded, decisive and selfless. Yet I have to say that part of the expedition's problems stem from his failure to take charge of the planning early enough. He left many of the details of supplies and equipment to Zahm and others. Due to poor planning, the high-quality canoes they brought with them never reach the river and they have to rely on unreliable native dugouts. They also discover too late their food supplies are inadequate.

The other unforgettable individual in the book is Brazilian Colonel Candido Rondon, the co-leader of the trip. I had never heard of him, but I gather that he is a national hero in Brazil. He had led numerous expeditions into the Amazon to explore and lay telegraph lines, and worked hard to bring peace with Indians. He was stern and demanding, and seemed immune to the jungle diseases that afflicted, and often killed, the men around him.

"In the most remote reaches of the Amazon," Millard writes, "Rondon was unreachable and unstoppable. He had never allowed his men's suffering or even their deaths to affect his work in the wilderness, and he never would."

Millard broadens out the story with historical background of the Amazon and descriptions of the strange flora and fauna of the jungle. Much of this is fascinating, but she might take it a bit too far. As the expedition progresses, you want to stay with that story and see what happens. Millard may interrupt once too often with a scientific lesson.

If you enjoy this type of story, you should also consider "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's story of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Also, there are many good books on Ernest Shackleton's troubled Antarctic expedition that are worth a look.


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