Candice Millard,
The River of Doubt
(Doubleday, 2005)

Responding to political disappointment in 1913, former President Teddy Roosevelt sought a physical challenge, as he often did to offset despair or what he termed "black care." The opportunity presented was a lecture tour in South America that offered an excuse for a rendezvous with his son, Kermit, who was working in Brazil, and the chance of a "delightful holiday" adventure without risk along well-charted rivers of the continent.

It wasn't long after his arrival in South America that Roosevelt abandoned the idea of a "safe holiday" in favor of a real adventure -- exploration of an unexplored Amazon tributary, the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt).

Undertaken virtually on a whim, the expedition subjected his team to hardships that cost the lives of three men and brought Roosevelt himself to the brink of suicide.

The course and character of the river was unknown even to its discoverer, Col. Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Brazil's greatest explorer, who was to be co-commander of the expedition. This was truly unexplored territory, unlike anything the Roosevelts had ever experienced, a river with punishing rapids surrounded by treacherous jungle teeming with dangerous animals, reptiles and Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows.

Candice Millard has done an excellent job in telling this story, which has an absorbing cast of characters -- not the least of which is Theodore Roosevelt. The hardships brought out the best in this great man who never shirked sharing the work and even his rations with those who trusted his leadership on the journey.

As an example of just how wild the area was, it should be pointed out that not until 1926 did another expedition led by another American, George Miller Dyott, successfully descend this river. Dyott (who led another expedition in 1928 in search of Col. P.H. Fawcett, who had disappeared in the same area in 1926) reported the river little changed from Roosevelt's description. And, the Cinta Larga Indians who posed danger to the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition were not finally pacified until the 1960s.

In large measure, the suffering of the expedition could have been lessened with better planning. Roosevelt put entirely too much trust in his friend, Father John Zahm, who, in turn, put his trust in unreliable subordinates. That does not diminish the achievement of those who undertook the journey. What Millard brings out that is most surprising is that their achievement was met by skepticism and disbelief by many eminent geographers.

by John R. Lindermuth
28 January 2006

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