Candice Millard, former National Geographic writer, describes the journey Theodore Roosevelt undertook traveling the then unmapped Amazonian River of Doubt, an adventurous exploration that nearly ended up costing him his life.
A few others did lose their lives under varying circumstances during the arduous and ill-planned journey. But history was made, as the River of Doubt was tracked for the first time.
This is a book to recommend those who think history books are inevitably textbooky, or who don’t read much nonfiction in the first place. It’s impossible not to be intrigued by both the storytelling style and historical premise here. It’s certainly a side of the former President I knew nothing and loved learning about.
And that doesn’t only apply to what he accomplished on this expedition, but about him personally. Millard has that literary nonfiction gift, of sowing facts smoothly into readable narrative and sketching out a biography of a man who’s been written about plenty, but about whom there always seems to be another facet to reveal, whether informative or just amusing. Some favorites: Roosevelt “had a voice that sounded as if he had just taken a sip of helium, but his outsized personality made him unforgettable and utterly irresistible.” Naturalist John Burroughs said that “When he came into the room it was as if a strong wind had blown the door open.”
He’s also someone Donald Trump could take a lesson from in increasing his minuscule vocabulary and improving his petty nickname game. About his political rival William Howard Taft, Roosevelt “dismiss[ed] him as ‘a flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him.’”
The catalyst for this journey was the opportunity it provided both for Roosevelt to lick his wounds outside the public eye and sate his need to always be doing, accomplishing, adventuring. His foray into the Dakota Badlands in his youth was the result of losing his wife and his mother on the same day. He’d gone on African safari after finishing his presidential term in 1909, and as Millard explains, it was his wont to throw himself into his next big project and just keep going:
When confronted with sadness or setbacks that were beyond his power to overcome, Roosevelt instinctively sought out still greater tests, losing himself in punishing physical hardship and danger – experiences that came to shape his personality and inform his most impressive achievements.
In 1912, he ran for the presidency again after forming the progressive Bull Moose party to challenge the aforementioned common second-rate flubdub. The split between Republicans allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the election for the Democrats, and Roosevelt, rather than wallow in defeat, took off for the Amazon and a new adventure.
After establishing this bold, indefatigable “Rough Rider” personality of the former president, known for being both a conservationist and an avid hunter, Millard has set the scene for one of the book’s major conflicts: Roosevelt fell gravely ill in the Amazon, at a time and place where being that sick was a quick death sentence.
The journey, perilous under the best of conditions, was significantly hampered by the bumbling crew assembled for the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition. Roosevelt wanted a scientifically successful trip, not merely adventure for the sake of it. His guide, the impressive and heroic Brazilian Colonel Candido Rondon, pointed him towards the 1,000 mile long River of Doubt, a yet uncharted offshoot of the Amazon that snaked through thick, dangerous swathes of jungle. Its exceptionally rugged terrain made the usual and not insignificant perils of an Amazon journey (dangerous and poisonous creatures, threat from illness and native peoples, high potential for injury with limited access to treatment) even more perilous if something went wrong. Which it often did.
It was a badly prepared group that forged into the jungle. Roosevelt hired a friend to handle the details, who then hired another explorer who’d become infamous for bungling expedition preparations, who equipped them with plenty of wine and artisanal mustard but not enough hearty food. It’s a comedy of errors with deadly repercussions and all before even accounting for what awaited them in the jungle. Millard thrillingly explains some of the dangerous and deadly creatures creeping, crawling, and swimming in the Amazonian ecosystem.
The screams, crashes, clangs, and cries of the long Amazon night were all the more disturbing because they often provoked apparent terror among the unseen inhabitants of the jungle themselves. In the fathomless canyons of tree trunks and the shrouds of black vines that surrounded the men at night, the hum and chatter of thousands of nocturnal creatures would snap into instant silence in response to a strange noise, leaving the men to wait in breathless apprehension of what might come next.
The most horrifying, a fish that leaps from the water and into the urethra of someone relieving themselves, will haunt you forever. Her nature writing is extraordinary, as is the portraits not only of Roosevelt but of Rondon, an advocate for the natives (who were debating whether or not to kill the expedition members as they passed through) and clearly the unsung hero of this journey, without whose expertise and action would’ve come to even greater tragedy than it did.
There was no question that Roosevelt considered the descent of the River of Doubt to be a great cause – a cause that was, like war, worth dying for … he wrote, “If I had to die anywhere, why not die in helping to open up to the knowledge of the world a great unknown land and so aid humanity in general and the people of Brazil in particular?”
Roosevelt made it out of the rainforest, a little weaker for the rest of his life but having made history, albeit at great cost. Compelling and wonderfully crafted narrative nonfiction and natural science writing coupled with extensive historical detail make this both deeply educational and wildly entertaining.