Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Subtitled Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, this tells the story of Roosevelt's trip into South America to map an unknown Amazon tributary after his defeat for a third Presidency. Equal parts true life adventure story, biographical portrait of a larger than life politician, and South American history, this is a generally interesting, sometimes gripping story I had never heard before. I will admit that my knowledge of long dead presidents is fairly sketchy and generally limited at best to their major accomplishments (or failures) in office, but I did have some inkling of the adventure-junky aspect of Roosevelt's character. After all, which school child hasn't heard about the hunting trip that resulted in the naming of the teddy bear or about his African safaris or about his Rough Riders? But about the expedition down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, nothing.

After his final defeat, Roosevelt obviously needed something to take his mind off the political failure and to test him physically, despite suffering from numerous ailments that would have kept a less determined man from the hardship and danger that faced him in the Amazonian jungle. The South American officer leading the expedition wanted to chart the course of the the River of Doubt. The museum naturalists accompanying the former president wanted to catalog new species of plant and animal. The Catholic father who had been the originator of the plan wanted a South American adventure. Kermit Roosevelt was along to make sure no ill came to his father. And the local men were there to paddle the inadequate log boats and do most of the hardest work of the journey. Like all good adventure stories, this has murder and hardship and ultimate survival only by the skin of the men's teeth. It has inadequate knowledge coupled with appalling risks and near starvation. And it has the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt. Even with all of this, there are still times when Millard's narrative bogs down in details. The journey took far longer than anyone had anticipated and perhaps drawing the narrative out was intended to mimic the increasingly desperate slog down the river in a race against time but the end especially really dragged until the men emerge from the renamed Roosevelt River. Once the objective of conquering the river has been met, Millard speeds the narrative on, giving a quick overview of what happened to all the notable (or traceable) men of the party.

I didn't originally want to read this book when it was chosen by my bookclub but it certainly turned out to be more interesting that I had suspected. Ultimately I ended up liking it but I can see my friend's argument that it was dry. I will pass it along to my husband as he's a history buff for whom I suspect it will be a perfect read.

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