River of Doubt by Candice Millard

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Book Reviews

How many individuals choose to explore the unknown? One former United States President looking for adventure braved weather, insects, and illness while doing this very thing.

Kansas City author Candice Millard in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey provides an intimate look at the expedition Roosevelt took in 1914 on the River of Doubt (since renamed Roosevelt River) in Brazil. After losing the 1912 Presidential election to Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt went home to New York to lick his wounds. He did not want to think his life of service had ended. Also, his drive to explore and be outdoors after his days of ranching in the Dakotas and hunting in Africa had never left him.

An invitation for a series of speaking engagements in South America led the former president to investigate the possibility of engaging his passion for natural history by going down the unexplored River of Doubt in the Amazon rain forest. With assistance from the American Museum of Natural History, a trip with Roosevelt leading took shape to venture down this tributary to the Amazon. Both Americans and Brazilians joined this expedition, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit. Equipment and supplies were collected and the group set out on their journey.

To reach the start of the river, the men and their gear traveled on land for hundreds of miles. By the time they reached the river, several men left to explore other rivers as it had become apparent that supplies would be in short supply for those on the River of Doubt.

A trip through the Amazon rain forest meant thick vegetation, unknown animals and natives, and plenty of biting insects. Roosevelt and his men also encountered heavy rapids that caused long portages through dense underbrush.

The trip went slowly as river hazards and other difficulties came up. Several times boats were lost to the rapids and needed to be replaced. Their food provisions had to be rationed to make them last for the entire trip. They found little to eat along the way even with the forest and river. The constant presence of mosquitoes caused most of the men to suffer malaria. The trip had a murder and the drowning of another member. The expedition endured its worst setback when Roosevelt suffered a minor leg injury while working to free a canoe from the rapids. This injury became infected and the former President nearly died. The party spent the rest of their time on the river working to relieve his suffering. Their food supplies continued to dwindle.

Beaten down with hunger and disease, the group met up with some rubber tappers. Once assured the Roosevelt’s party had peaceful intentions, these tappers provided food, better canoes, and their knowledge of the river. They guided the men to a junction of the River of Doubt where Roosevelt’s men met a relief party. Their journey came to an end without going all the way on the river. Once home, Roosevelt faced detractors who said he did not make the trip that he did. To the end of his life, he fought for recognition of his Brazilian adventure. His leg injury cut short his life as he never fully recovered from it. However, Theodore Roosevelt got his grand adventure leaving him with tales that rivaled those from Africa and the Dakotas.

I enjoyed this tale of hair raising adventure. The suffering of Roosevelt and his perseverance despite it, moved me. I don’t know that I enjoyed all the encounters with insects, but the story held my attention throughout the book. For a different view of a former politician this is a good read. Prepare to be inspired and awed at the same time.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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