“The River of Doubt”

by davidbjensen

Millard, Candice.  The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.  New York:  Doubleday.  2005.

Hands down, this is one of the most palpitating non-fiction books I’ve read in some time!  Blending biography with natural history with action thriller, Millard provides a riveting account of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition in 1914 down a tributary of the Amazon River. As the first “civilized” men to navigate this tributary deep in the Brazilian jungle, their effort was to survey the river and officially put it on the map.  This is a harrowing tale of what the men and their team encountered along the way.  Among the hardships they faced–and this list is by no means exhaustive–are suffocating heat, torrential downpours, disease-carrying, poisonous insects, piranhas, cannibalistic native tribes, impassable rapids, starvation, and so on.  After barely making it out alive, Roosevelt was greeted upon his return to the United States by incredulous adversaries, claiming his story to be embellished.  If I may say so myself, much of what the men survived to tell is truly hard to believe!

Upon beginning this book, I expected an account of perilous adventure during the Golden Age of Exploration, and not much more.  But the author makes a number of digressions that are pertinent, engaging, and educational.  For example, she spells out the geologic forces that, over the eons, created the Andes to the west, and the Amazon basin to the east, which was once an inland sea before ages of erosion created a drainage basin, and thus, the great river.  She speaks eloquently on why the first European explorers christened the river the “Amazon,” with its roots in Greek mythology.  Pouring over pages and pages, she explicates many of the amazingly advanced evolutionary adaptations and symbiotic relationships among the flora and fauna of the Amazonian rain forest.  In no way distracting, these tangential descriptions imbue the book with a well-rounded sense of appreciation for what these explorers had gotten themselves into.

As an intern at the American Museum of Natural History, I found this book to be particularly enjoyable, as I was able to supplement the reading with the exhibition on display in the Hall of South American Peoples.  Furthermore, in the photographic archives in the research library, there is an entire drawer marked “Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition, 1914,” containing hundreds of prints from the expedition.  Those visual stimuli really helped bring Millard’s remarkably detailed verbal descriptions to life.  In fact, much of her research was conducted at the AMNH research library.

No question about it…5 out of 5 stars!

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