Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reading Journal: "The River of Doubt"

Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. Anchor Books 2005. Paperback. 416 pp. (with notes and index). $15.

It was a day or two before Christmas, and my son still had to find me a present, so he did the best thing he could possibly do. He walked down to Monkey See, Monkey Read, where Jerry had the perfect suggestion: Candice Millard's gripping account of Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 expedition down a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon, the River of Doubt. Millard, an editor for National Geographic, delivers a perfect mix of biography, natural history, and adventure as she chronicles Roosevelt's fight for survival on the deadly river.

In 1912, Roosevelt was disenchanted with his Presidential successor William Howard Taft and the Republican party's abandonment of his own progressive principles. He decided to make another run for President at the head of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. In a crowded field (Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs), Roosevelt split the GOP vote and helped send Woodrow Wilson to the White House.* At loose ends, and suddenly a persona non grata with his former party, Roosevelt decided to fulfill a childhood dream of being a real explorer. So he set out on a poorly planned expedition down a mysterious South American river that exposed him to piranhas, cannibals, malaria, and a life-threatening infection that nearly ended his life.

Millard knows how to create suspense and a sense of the dangers that beset Roosevelt's expedition, without sacrificing historical or scientific accuracy. My only qualm is that she occasionally seems to anthropomorphize the menace of the Brazilian rain forest. For example, she writes: "Yet the same evolutionary competition that filled each branch, shadow, and muddy puddle with an unparalleled diversity of living things also ensured that those forms of life were virtually invisible to Roosevelt and his men. Those glimpses of activity that they did manage to see, moreover, were often calculated for the specific purpose of confusing and misleading them. Rarely in the rain forest do animals or insects allow themselves to be seen, and any that do generally do so with ulterior motives" (emphasis added). The attribution of calculation and ulterior motives to nature seems to me to misrepresent the mechanism of natural selection. But perhaps this is a minor criticism in the context of a true-life adventure story that aims to give the reader a vivid sense of the danger that surrounded Roosevelt and his men on their descent of the River of Doubt.

Millard tells a thrilling story, and as always, Theodore Roosevelt emerges as a compelling, larger-than-life figure.

*The story of the 1912 election is well told in James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election that Changed the Country (Simon and Schuster 2004). It was Chace who suggested to Millard the idea of writing about Roosevelt's expedition on the River of Doubt.

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