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Have you read: ‘River of Doubt’ travels into the Amazon

Stan Miller

“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” by Candice Millard

If you are a fan of non-fiction adventure stories like “Into Thin Air,” “Touching the Void” and “Endurance,” you’ll definitely enjoy “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” by Candice Millard.

When Woodrow Wilson crushes Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents in American history, at the polls in November 1912 after two terms in office, Roosevelt is shunned by his high-society Republican friends for having run as a third-party candidate and is generally lampooned by everyone else for losing by such a wide margin.

What is his response? He sets off into the Brazilian jungle for an adventure up an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, known as The River of Doubt.

For the indefatigable Roosevelt, adventure was a form of self-imposed therapy. Roosevelt had been a pallid, sickly child who had overcome asthma and early illness by throwing himself into physical challenge. Whenever hit by despair, he collected himself and embarked on some kind of adventure.

There was never any question about Roosevelt’s stamina. While campaigning for the 1912 election he had been shot in the chest by a Bavarian immigrant. Although wounded (one bullet was five inches inside him,) Roosevelt insisted on delivering the address, holding up his text so that the terrified audience could glimpse the holes in it as he shouted, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” As far as he was concerned, a resounding political whipping called for a fabulous feat.

Fortunately, he was invited to Latin America to deliver a series of political speeches. For the former President it was an uninteresting proposition; he claimed to hate public speaking, but the thought of a jungle adventure was a big incentive.

That his third son, Kermit, was living in Brazil at the time made the idea of an adventure in South America all the more enticing.

The expedition was to be led jointly by Roosevelt and Brazil’s most celebrated explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon. Kermit was invited to participate, and he readily accepted despite his recent engagement. Another leading member was the naturalist George Cherrie, who had spent 30 years exploring the Amazon.

A journey of 400 miles took them across the Brazilian Highlands to the Amazon basin. Three years earlier, while exploring the region, Rondon had discovered a twisting, foaming waterway. He had no clue where it went, or if it went anywhere at all, therefore he christened it Rio da Duvida, The River of Doubt.

The stream was a surging passage of rapids and boiling white water, the banks of which hid enraged Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows. Danger was all around: anacondas, piranhas, caimans, sweat bees, disease, hunger, fever, and worst of all, the uncertainty of knowing when, how or if it would come to an end.

But for Roosevelt the jungle also provided the therapy he sought, making his usual world of American politics seems distant and trivial. The endless succession of calamities (resulting from bad luck but mostly poor planning) would have been enough to distract the most disciplined mind.

Notable setbacks included terrible illness and the loss of canoes and supplies to the perilous rapids. By the end of the journey the party was so worn down that even the slowest advance was an ordeal.

The team members were emaciated, crippled by disease and fatigue and trapped by rapids.

Roosevelt injured his leg and the infection almost killed him. One night George Cherrie, the naturalist and Amazonian expert, took a good look at the feverish figure and wrote in his diary that he had little hope that Roosevelt would survive until morning. Roosevelt barely pulled through and the company finally ran into rubber tappers, the first sign that they were coming back to civilization.

The author’s research and description of the mapping of the uncharted Amazon Basin reveals much about South American history that most North Americans never bother to learn.

– Stan Miller is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore.


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