The River of Doubt, Candice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Summary: Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life.
What does one do with oneself after you’ve been President of the United States? What, especially does one do when still relatively young? This was the dilemma of Theodore Roosevelt, known to most of us for his adventures with the Rough Riders, his ascent to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination, and for his own reform-minded presidency and a foreign policy shaped by the dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some even are aware of his failed run for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2012. Fewer of us are aware of his journey down a never-before explored river in Brazil that nearly cost him his life, and irreversibly damaged his health.
It is this journey that Candice Millard brilliantly narrates in this work. I first discovered Millard in her later exploration of the assassination of James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic, reviewed here), in which she helps us understand what we lost in Garfield, the crazed personality of his assassin, and the botched medical care that resulted in his death. So I was delighted to return to this author’s earlier work, which did not disappoint.
I had previously read about this journey in Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt (reviewed here). Where it seemed that Morris focused mostly on Roosevelt’s battle with the infection that nearly killed him, and the urgent race to get him back to civilization, Millard gives us much more of the whole story behind the exploration, and much more about the journey both before and after Roosevelt sustained the injury that threatened his life. She sets the context of the invitation to go on an exploratory journey over a relatively safe portion of the Amazon with Catholic Father Zahm, and the decision, influenced by explorer Rondon, to explore a previously unexplored and unmapped river, known as the River of Doubt. We meet other key figures in the expedition from the failed Arctic explorer Fiala, who was responsible for poorly provisioning the expedition, Cherrie, the skilled naturalist who played an indispensable role in the expedition, the cameradas, some remarkably able and on whom the expedition’s success largely rested, and some dissolute, like Julio, who kills another expedition member, and ultimately is left to his fate in the rain forest. Finally, Millard sketches the intense personality of son Kermit, dedicated to his father’s survival, newly engaged, and trying to carve out his own identity in the shadow of his father.
She also narrates a journey that seems to go wrong from the start as overburdened animals shed needed supplies and die on the land journey to the river’s headwaters. And then there is the harrowing journey itself, running through the territory of a fierce tribe of Indians, involving repeated overland diversions because of rapids that might have been negotiated in the lightweight boats, but impossible to traverse in the heavy, unwieldy dugouts. It was during the effort to retrieve one of these that broke loose in a rapid that Roosevelt re-injured a leg injury that rapidly became infected. Between a serious infection, and malaria, Roosevelt’s life hangs in the balance, as does the survival of the expedition, short on food, all suffering the effects of disease and malnutrition.
We relive the struggle between the courageous resolve of the explorers, the dangers of attack at any moment, and the ravage of illness and infection as they struggle toward the junction with the Amazon. We learn the price Roosevelt paid for the glory of accomplishing this exploration. Millard also recounts the afterlife of the other explorers, including the sad trajectory of Kermit’s life, much like that of Roosevelt’s brother Elliot.
Along the way, we see the indomitable spirit of Roosevelt, the disregard for his own safety and life in the pursuit of great aims, and the survival of others, and the humility of being willing, as a former president, to do anything from do the laundry of other expedition members to rescue a stranded canoe, all the while pursuing habits of reading and writing for which he was famously known. We also see the driven character of a man who even in his sixth decade as a former president, still needed to test himself physically against rigors that had killed many younger men.
If you enjoy biography, narratives of exploration, or anything concerning Roosevelt, I would highly commend this riveting narrative of the exploration of the River of Doubt, and Roosevelt’s “darkest journey.