Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: The River of Doubt

Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is a pleasure to read. This is a comprehensive account of the former president’s exploration of an unknown river in Brazil, using the journals of a number of people involved in this dark and almost disastrous journey.

Theodore Roosevelt was a man’s man who plunged himself into vigorous pursuit of outdoor danger after any disappointment in life. After his father’s death, he explored and hunted in the backwoods of Maine. When his mother and wife died on the same day, he went out breaking horses in the Dakota Territories. When he finished his terms as a Republican president, he explored and hunted in Africa. And when he failed to regain the presidency as the Bull Moose candidate, he explored a river in Brazil infested with caimans (a South American alligator) and piranha.

It’s hard to convey the tremendous work involved. They rowed their dugouts, yes, but when they encountered falls they had to portage those same dugouts. This involved hacking away with machetes through the jungle beside the waterfall, then using ropes to haul those dugouts down. They did this several times, giving an idea of how hardy these men were.

Woefully ill-prepared, the expedition had to go to half-rations, yet continue the same arduous work of rowing and portaging, not knowing if they would starve to death if this river of unknown length outlasted their rations. They tried to hunt game, but the Amazon rain forest usually defeated their efforts to spot any.

At one point, Roosevelt lay near death, feverous from disease and from a large abscess that developed from a leg injury during portaging. His son Kermit, an engineer whose skills were vital for the expedition, expected his father to die.

Since I’m leaving a link for Teaser Tuesdays, a bookish meme at Should Be Reading, I will include two random sentences from The River of Doubt:

When the expedition reached Tapirapoan just before noon on January 16, Roosevelt stepped off his boat expecting to find a well-organized army of oxen and mules prepared to carry heavy loads and make a quick departure for the River of Doubt. To his amazement and dismay, what awaited him in the little riverside village was not military precision but utter chaos.  —p. 85.

A companion volume is Roosevelt’s own account, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. It discusses in great detail how the expedition suffered the most from insects. If a man’s knee pressed against the mosquito netting overnight, that would allow access to the mosquitoes’ snouts, and the knee could look like cauliflower the next morning. There were ants whose bites stung like fire, black ants an inch and a quarter long, termites that would eat their clothing, and multitudes of stinging flying insects.

And besides the insects, there were spiders who did not so much spin webs as lower weblines down to the forest floor, as thick as ropes. 
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