Teddy Roosevelt’s River of Doubt
I love books about people who do things that I wouldn’t. Whether it is Lynne Cox, who swam a mile in freezing Antarctic waters, the mountaineers who climb into air thin enough to stop bodily functions or the astronauts of Apollo 13 returning to earth in a crippled spacecraft, I am fascinated by these exploits.
Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey certainly fits into this category. I knew nothing of the former president’s trip down an uncharted Amazon tributary called, aptly, the River of Doubt, after his final political defeat in 1912. As Millard tells it, tribulation, poor planning and a hostile environment led the expedition to a place that killed expedition members and seriously taxed Roosevelt’s survival skills. He would never really recover, and the journey would contribute to his death six years later at age sixty.
Millard paints the story vividly, drawing on journals, accounts, books and photography. Here comes the famous American ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, and Col. Candido Rondon, Brazil’s most celebrated explorer and a national hero, to navigate and chart a river never before navigated.
Millard makes us feel what it would have been like to spend six weeks in an environment almost completely hostile to humans. Her descriptions of Amazonian ecology and evolution bring you into this colorful, alien world, which, at least in the first days, brought only awe and admiration from the travelers. “Far from its outward appearance, the rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite,” Millard writes. “Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, a the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”
Without giving anything away, those inhabitants — flora, fauna, reptiles, insects, mammals, fish, and a formidable aboriginal tribe – and the weather gather in a kind of perfect storm of a story that I couldn’t put down until I finished. Billie said it right when she handed it to me after she had finished it, “It’s a page-turner.”