The true story of Theodore Roosevelt's harrowing 1914 exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth, a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron. After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped tributary of the Amazon. He and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. Yet he accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it.--From publisher description.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt failed to win an unprecedented third term in the White House. By 1913, he had organized a group of men who would accompany him in an exploration of the thousand mile long River of Doubt through Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. In addition to his son Kermit, he was accompanied by Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Brazil’s most famous explorer, naturalist George Cherrie and a team of South American camaradas.
Candice Millard did a remarkable job bringing to light the tremendous feat accomplished by the Roosevelt expedition. Against improbable odds and in a way that left the experts in disbelief, Roosevelt and his crew faced mind-boggling adversity including starvation, disease, drowning, venomous snakes, unremitting whitewater rapids and even murder. And the possibility of being attacked by Indians, evidence of which is just about everywhere they turned. Add to the mix that Roosevelt himself was near death during a good portion of the trip and you have the makings of an astonishing bio.
It’s one thing to tell an adventure story like this in dry non-fiction prose. It’s quite another to put all the facts together in a narrative that fairly sings and has the reader on the edge of their seat from beginning to end. That’s what Millard has done: turned a presidential biography into a page turning thriller, and oh what a ride it is. Very highly recommended.
After a humiliating election defeat in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was asked to head an expedition to the Amazon. After much deliberation, he decided he needed an adventure and boy did he get one, nearly killing himself and his son Kermit, in the process.
The mission was to trace Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt”), a Brazilian tributary of the great Amazon River. Completely ill-prepared, this exploration seemed doomed from the start.
Millard, in her debut, presents an exciting, well-researched story, filled with courage, foolhardiness, unexpected horror, resilience and breath-taking descriptions of a majestic, yet cruel and unyielding, jungle.
This would make an excellent companion piece to The Lost City of Z, one of my favorite non-fiction titles from a couple years ago. Highly recommended.
Having just lost his third run for president, Theodore Roosevelt was feeling uncharacteristically hurt and adrift. A man of unusual energy and drive, he was lost without the constant clamor of politics around him. When he receives a letter from a museum in Argentina asking him to come and speak, he decides to combine post-presidential duties with a visit to his 23-year-old son, Kermit, who was working in Brazil. This combined with an encounter with a fellow adventure seeker and a nod from the American Museum of Natural History set Roosevelt on the path of his most physically arduous trek in a life of arduous treks: to do a first descent of a rapids-filled river through a huge swatch of uncharted Amazon filled with unknown tribes. In true Roosevelt fashion, he and Kermit survive a harrowing adventure filled with starvation, attacks, illness, drowning, and murder, and with the expert partnership of Brazilian explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, change the map of South America.
I received this book as a gift and felt compelled to begin reading it right away. Within a chapter, I was spellbound. I'm not a reader of presidential memoirs in general, but the combination of excellent writing, larger than life characters, and an unbelievable storyline kept me flipping pages like I was looking for a plumber in the phone book. The author weaves politics, natural history, and the story of Brazilian relations with native peoples into a tapestry that explains and augments the journey without dragging it down. So intrigued did I become with facets of Roosevelt's character, that I picked up another Roosevelt memoir as soon as the last page of this one was turned. Candice Millard is a storyteller, and she picked a good story to tell. I hope she finds another soon, because this was a great read.
The River of Doubt is about an exploration of a 1,000 mile tributary of the Amazon through dense rain forest and hostile native tribes. However, the most notable part of the exploration is that one of its leaders was former President Teddy Roosevelt. Shortly after loosing his bid for re-election when Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, Roosevelt wass persuaded to go to South America where he would speak to various heads of state and tour the Amazon. However, Roosevelt soon transformed what was originally conceived as being more of a pleasure cruise into something much more adventurous - an exploration of one of the unmapped waterways in the Brazilian interior.
Millard, who is an excellent writer, explains how the idea then spun out of control with plans being made for an expedition by people who did not understand what exploring this part of the world meant. Meanwhile, Roosevelt who had a long history of adventure seeking and challenging himself, failed to grasp until very late in the process that the organizers to whom he had entrusted the details did not really understand the undertaking well enough. Moreover, Roosevelt himself comes across as foolishly confident of his ability to persevere, especially considering his age.
The story of the expedition makes clear just how dangerous the journey truly was and how close Roosevelt came to dying in the attempt. The idea of an ex-President disappearing into the wilderness for months today in order to explore unknown lands is unthinkable today. Of course, the modern world also has fewer blank spaces on our maps too. There are no 1,000 mile rivers that lay undiscovered and it has now become a challenge to avoid contact with the rest of the world for months, even in remote places.
Millard's book was a fascinating read for her discussion of Roosevelt's character and the events of the trip itself. I will say that much of the description of the perils of the rain forest read a lot like the descriptions in Jungleland and the Lost City of Z but I suppose there are only so many ways to describe the environment. Ultimately though it is the involvement of Roosevelt that elevates this well done book of exploration into a unique historical event.
While this story is merely a short chapter in the incredible life of Roosevelt, it is an excellent indicator of his view of life and his character. For those who have read more comprehensive biographies of Roosevelt, many of the details of the journey will not be surprising. In my opinion, Roosevelt (along with perhaps Benjamin Franklin) is the most "American" of all historical Americans. From a childhood marked by poor health and personal tragedy, Roosevelt rehabilitated both his physical and emotional beings through a succession of personal tests. Cattle ranching on the plains of the unsettled Dakota badlands, leading the Roughrider charge on San Juan Hill, winning the Presidency, African safaris and finally charting the previously undiscovered Rio du Duvida (River of Doubt) were a series of challenges confronted and ultimately conquered by Roosevelt. I feel strongly that it is only the absence of a history defining event during his Presidency that prevents him from being held in the same regard as Lincoln and Washington in our pantheon of Presidents (he is after all on Mount Rushmore).
In addition to setting out the seemingly impossible obstacles facing the expedition (hostile Indians, miserable weather, poor provisioning, debilitating disease, maddening insect infestation and other hazardous animal life), the book does an outstanding job of introducing the reader to other important members of the expedition, most importantly, Brazilian explorer and naturalist Colonel Candido Rondon and Roosevelt's son Kermit.
If you enjoy this type of story, I would highly recommend Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, which details the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Candice Millard's account of the Roosevelt-Rondon South American Expedition of 1914 is a fascinating book, if you continuously remind yourself how far our sense of science, exploration and knowledge have come in a hundred years, and how much the presidency and post-presidency endeavours have changed over the same course of time. Millard's writing is at times a bit awkward, but the journey into the unknown itself is the star of this book.
Hard to imagine today, but just a hundred years ago, no one knew what the Amazon interior looked like. There were no planes, satellites, four wheel drives or GPS. Explorers used oxen to carry their life support needs. There was no way to prepare in advance for what might be encountered. You could still discover rivers and mountains and name them yourself. That is the adventure Roosevelt set for himself after losing the presidential election by splitting his own party’s vote with a third party of his own. He was out, he was ignored, he was bored and he was depressed. And like many another, when in that state of being, the solution was: Road Trip!
The miracle of the trip (other than making it home at all) was that he was able to engage Candido Rondon to lead it for him. The Brazilian Rondon was experienced in the area because as head of the telegraph commission, he had been leading teams of men stringing wire over an 800 mile stretch of roadless interior, cutting trees for poles and planting them by hand as they went. He also headed the bureau protecting Indians (though they did not know it, there being no communications), which was his lifelong passion. He had come from total poverty to the military (as his only chance out) and drove himself relentlessly and flawlessly to positions of respect. Despite his small size, slight stature, country accent, lack of education, or friends. He instituted logic, common sense and zero hypocrisy in his leadership style. He was an unimpeachable miracle in a state known for vast corruption, violence and cruelty. His repeated single directive was: Die, but do not shoot. He lived to 93 despite all his exposure to the jungles and rainforests. He attained the rank of marshal. He refused all entreaties to run for office or engage in politics. The state of Rondonia is named after him. He is the fascinating character of this book.
The Amazon Basin provides the intrigue. Millard spices the narrative with side trips to the geology, topology, meteorology, flora and fauna of the area. Everything is hidden; that’s the primary survival tactic. Fish eat men, flies attach their eggs to mosquitoes in flight, which then burrow under the skin of the mosquitoes’ victims. Insects act like no others on earth, infecting victims in ways science fiction has yet to leverage, killing them quickly through paralysis, slowly through blockage of the urethra, or endlessly through lifelong diseases. It rains in fierce downpours two or three times every hour. There is no letup. Every second is a fight for survival for every lifeform. The forest is utterly dark 24 hours a day, as everything that can competes for sunlight a hundred feet up. Everything has more enemies than it can handle. Rondon pushed the weakest ox into the river to distract the piranhas while the entire party crossed downstream. Indians followed them everywhere, but were never seen, in a trip lasting months. They were part of the landscape and environment, where the explorers were blundering intruders. It took months for them to go a hundred miles. Several didn’t make it. Roosevelt barely did.
This trip had everything a Hollywood film could want. It had failures, incompetence, selfishness, theft, horrific weather, worse luck, bad choices, insurmountable obstacles, sickness, weariness, starvation, exhaustion, murder, conflict, and at the last possible moment – deliverance.
There are plenty of larger-than-life Roosevelt stories along the way. But on the journey itself, he was known for never shutting up. Rondon never heard a man talk so much in his life – when eating, when bathing, when anything, Roosevelt was telling stories. The great hunter of Africa was able to deliver nothing – not even a fish – the entire trip. It all makes for a most intriguing adventure.
Before I picked up this book, I only knew stray tidbits about Theodore
Roosevelt. Roosevelt Dam outside of Phoenix is named after him. He stayed at
the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee. He inspired someone to make the first
Teddy bear and name it after him. The Rough Riders and San Juan Hill. "Speak
softly and carry a big stick." He seemed to like to travel the world with a
brace of guns and blow critters to smithereens.
I know a lot more about him now, thanks to Candice Millard.
Millard focuses on an episode of Teddy Roosevelt's search for adventure that
came within a whisker of ending in disaster. A year after he lost a
third-party bid for President in 1912, Roosevelt decided to chase away his
blues by accepting an invitation for a South American trip that rapidly
evolved into an ill-prepared journey down an unexplored tributary of the
Amazon known as the River of Doubt. Being a rather typical VIP, Roosevelt
was content to let someone else do the planning and packing. Big mistake.
The person who stepped up to the plate as trip planner was a media crazy old
priest who was more interested in photo opportunities than he was in
ensuring that the trip was a success. He, in turn, chose another man to
round up all the supplies that would be needed--a man who'd only gone
exploring in the Arctic, and had done such an abysmal job of planning and
packing that all the people in the expedition almost died of exposure and
Sounds like a recipe for disaster so far, doesn't it?
What kept the expedition from failing was the rest of the men--including
Roosevelt himself; his son, Kermit; the "co-captain" Brazilian Colonel
Cândido Rondon; naturalist George Cherrie; and several of the camaradas
hired to lug supplies and boats. Not enough food was packed. The boats were
the wrong type to travel down a river filled with white water rapids. A
cannibalistic tribe of natives shadowed their every move. An injury
Roosevelt sustained became infected with flesh-eating bacteria and left him
so weak that, at his lowest moment, he told Kermit to leave him to die in
the rainforest. Through it all, another character looms large in the
narrative--the Amazon rainforest. It is truly one of the most remarkable
places on this planet.
After Roosevelt lost the bid for President in 1912, he decided he needed something to take his mind off of the loss. In 1913, with his son Kermit, the famous Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, various naturalists, camaradas, boats, pack animals, and provisions, he went off to explore the Amazon jungle and the mysterious Rio da Duvida. This book details the disease, starvation, cannibals, constant rain, whitewater rapids, giant insects, flesh-eating fish, and other obstacles that became daily occurrences for the men on the river. Through it all, Teddy Roosevelt (in his mid-fifties!) displayed indomitable courage, stamina, energy, and good humor, inspiring all the others to keep pushing on in spite of hardships.
Although you will learn nothing about TR’s politics from this saga, you will learn a great deal about TR’s character, as well as about the beauty, strength, and invincibility of the rain forest.
I only wish I would have had that book available to me then (many moons ago) because I would have appreciated my personal journey better.
The journey of this expedition is so amazing no-one could have made it up.
If you live in NYC go to the Museum of Natural History and view the small River of Doubt display to compliment this book.
Candice Millard does a wonderful job describing not only the geologic history of the Brazilian rain forest, but the various plants, animals, dieses and Indian tribes that the expedition would have had to contend with. Readers are only left to marvel at how anyone could have survived such a journey. Let alone anyone as sick and exhausted as the former President. River of Doubt offers not only a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the ex-President, but a first rate survival story as well.
Teddy Roosevelt is an interesting character, and a president with whom I should be more familiar, but I'm afraid before I read this book the only things I could remember about him was the Rough Riders and "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The book sets the stage deliberately with information about the Roosevelts, American politics and more, but once it moves into the expedition it's a rip-roaring survival story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The information about Brazilian Indian tribes, rainforest ecology and more was fascinating.
Candice Millard has crafted a splendid, eminently readable and beautifully paced book that combines multiple biographic sketches, a history of the Brazilian rain forest and its native inhabitants with an exciting travel journey. Highly recommended.