My copy of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey quotes the Washington Post’s review on its back cover: “There are far too many books in which a travel writer follows in the footsteps of his or her hero—and there are far too few books like this, in which an author who has spent time and energy ferreting out material from archival sources weaves it into a gripping tale.”
As much as I’m inclined to defend those footstep-following travel writers, an actual reading of The River of Doubt bears out that reviewer. A narrative that depends on the writer’s own observations and experiences, with flashbacks and notes regarding those whose footsteps they’re following, no matter how well written, cannot give readers the visceral experience promised by a narrative relying solely on the original explorers’ writing.
Author Candice Millard delivers the kind of heart-in-mouth, exquisitely detailed tale you’d expect from a former writer and editor for National Geographic. The River of Doubt is a careful and riveting story of the journey that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt took after his depressing failure to win a third presidential term in office.
In 1912 Roosevelt corralled a naturalist, a famous Brazilian explorer, and his own son Kermit into an expedition to chart one of the Amazon’s unmapped, jungle-choked tributary rivers. The river had so thoroughly defeated previous attempts at exploration that it was dubbed the River of Doubt.
The expedition was poorly equipped, having relied on a supplier whose previous journey into the Arctic had ended in disaster, and a priest, a close friend of Roosevelt’s, who had little idea of the true physical hardships an Amazonian exploration would entail.
Millard is a master storyteller here, telescoping in to a tight focus on experiences from first-hand journal entries from the expedition’s commanders, including Roosevelt’s, then out briefly to a modern understanding of the Amazon jungle’s ecology and the native Indian tribes who inhabited it at the time, and back in again to the expedition’s heartbreaking and often deadly trials.
The book is fascinating on so many levels. There is the journey itself, the kind of knowledge-or-death scientific endeavor of that era we can’t seem to get enough of. There is the everyday drama of near-starvation, a constant battle with malaria and dysentery, the haunting survival-of-the-fittest ethic of the Amazon ecosystem, losing essential canoes and supplies to the River of Doubt’s many rapids, murder among the ranks, a drowning, and Roosevelt’s own near-suicide when he becomes so injured and ill that he fears costing others’ lives through his inability to function.
There is the tension surrounding this great man, who, although he had served two terms as president and would become one of the country’s most remembered leaders, felt that he hadn’t done anything of significance in his life. Millard skillfully weaves in his own restless energy, his fears for his son, the punishing and self-reliant way he’d raised his children, his essential if unacknowledged humanism, his lonely wife, and his bullish and bullheaded beliefs about America’s place in the world.
But what caught my attention more than any other detail of this incredible book was the way Millard dealt with class, and with it, racial tension.
As with any expedition of the time, the high-class (usually white) leaders got the credit and glory, while their adventure was made possible only by the underpaid, backbreaking, life-threatening labor of many unknown local men. The River of Doubt is one of the few books I’ve ever read that handles this issue without either turning it into a classist manifesto (that is, railing against Roosevelt and others who have cost countless lives through their desire for adventure), yet without ignoring the contribution that the expedition’s camaradas made to its—and indeed Roosevelt’s and his son’s—survival.
In other words, Millard balances respect and acknowledgment of all contributions (including the role a local Indian tribe played by choosing not to murder the entire expedition—a decision the expedition members were never aware of) without ever letting myriad issues cloud the story she is telling.
And what a story it is. It’s been a long time since I read a travel book that was as well put together, where not only the quotes chosen but the words used showed the hand of a craftsperson who didn’t let her own ego get in the way of the narrative.
I came away from The River of Doubt with a renewed respect for the Amazon jungle and its incredible ecosystem, but also with renewed respect for Theodore Roosevelt. In this book Millard has given us a new understanding of what drove the man through his life, and the dual thrills of adventure and scientific discovery he craved at its peak.
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