There are two starring roles in The River of Doubt. One is the Amazon Basin and the other is Colonel Candido Rondon. Theodore Roosevelt clearly plays a minor, supporting role. Which is ironic, considering his outsized personality. And the fact that the book tries to be about him.
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.
They don't make 'em like Theodore Roosevelt anymore. It's hard to imagine any modern ex-President embarking on a journey like that of Roosevelt's, months spent charting and surveying a previously unknown river in the heart of the rainforest, one of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on earth, out of contact with all civilisation, a small party thrown entirely on their own devices. Hell, it's all but impossible to imagine any President, past, present or future embarking on such a journey. Teddy Roosevelt was truly a man among men.
From man-eating fish, hostile Indians with no notion of the outside world, deadly rapids and waterfalls, flesh-eating bacteria, disease-carrying mosquitoes, murder and theft, starvation, desperation, Candice Millard brings this story to wonderful vivid life. I could honestly not put this book down. It would be a compelling enough story on its own, without such a larger-than-life character as Roosevelt at the heart of it.
I adore Teddy Roosevelt. One of the last sentences in this book, a quote by the explorer George Cherrie, who accompanied Roosevelt on his journal down the River of Doubt in the Amazon rainforest, seems particularly apt: "I have always thought it strange...how any man could be brought in close personal contact with Colonel Roosevelt without loving the man." Amen to that.
I had often heard of Theodore Roosevelt's exploration down through the Amazon Jungle, but had never read the details of this great adventure. "The River of Doubt" gave me that opportunity. Recoiling from his defeat in the 1912 election, invitations to undertake a lecture tour of South America grew into a "Last chance to be a boy." More than that, this journey of exploration down the uncharted River of Doubt, enabled Roosevelt to add his name to the list of great explorers of the earth, along with Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Hernando DeSoto and others who filled in blank spaces on the map.
It takes a book like this, totally devoted to the great exploration, to really convey the enormity of the challenge which met the Roosevelt expedition. Accompanied by his son, Kermit, and Brazil's most renowned explorer this voyage of discovery began by lightening its load at the expense of discharging food and equipment which it would later need. The River of Doubt was a thousand mile ribbon of water snaking through the densest jungle on earth. Challenged by waterfalls and rapids, heat and insects, deadly predators and watchful Indians, the expedition gradually weakened as it raced to reach the outside world before its supplies were exhausted. Drowned and murdered members had to be buried, crush canoes replaced, water hazards bypassed and elusive game hunted as the explorers struggled to complete the journey alive. Toward the end, little more than raw courage kept the men going.
For Theodore Roosevelt, this was a most unusual undertaking for an ex-President. Weakened by disease and infection resulting from a leg injury, TR almost died on several occasions and begged his companions to leave him behind so that the expedition would not be jeopardized. Protected by his son Kermit, he was denied the poison he had brought for just such an occasion and was brought out of the jungle broken, but alive.
This book is well written and holds the reader's attention as much as any mystery novel. An unexpected feature is the detailed description of the Amazonian environment. The narration of the problems presented by the unexpected timing of the ripening of fruit and the elusive traits of the game on which they had depended, introduces the reader into the scientific perspectives of the project. Through this work the reader obtains an appreciation for TR's strength of character. It is almost unimaginable that anyone with the privileges of a former president would undertake such a taxing and dangerous journey. On further reflection, it is equally unimaginable that TR would let such an opportunity pass. As readers of my Amazon reviews know, I am a committed Ted Head and have read extensively about him. In this book, author Candice Millard admits us into the Final Triumph of a Magnificent Life.
on 23 October 2010
Rapid - because I could not put it down. Adventure, geography, history, botany, human relationships, courage and brute strength all meet in the impenetrable tangle of jungle and river. Was it a pity that no map of the area was included in the book? No, I decided, because the expediton party drew it as they went along so we had no right to know more than they did. However, at the end I turned to an atlas and was overawed by the immensity of the achievement.