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Books: ‘River of Doubt,’ part of Summer Reading Challenge

“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” by Candice Millard. Broadway Books. $14.95 paperback. 416 pp. Indexed.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
Theodore Roosevelt, known for his “Bully!” attitude, his large personality and his progressive politics, nearly died in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest in 1914.
When he finally got back to America, much altered physically and mentally by his ordeal, some people dared to call him a liar. And it was not just one man standing up in Congress.
Roosevelt and his comrades had survived a dangerous and deadly expedition down an uncharted river in the Amazon jungle.
Then, it was called the River of Doubt. In his honor, the ill-fated expeditionaries renamed the river Rio Roosevelt, or River Teodoro, which was easier for the South Americans to pronounce.
For people who know little about Roosevelt, other than sepia-toned photos and the teddy bear story, this book reveals much about the man.
Roosevelt, a sickly child, spent his life fighting. He fought to overcome a weak heart by being physically active. He fought wars. He fought political battles. He fought Native Americans. He fought wild animals in Africa.
Having lost his bid for president, running in the Progressive Party, Roosevelt was blamed for splintering the Republican Party, among other things.
Dejected and disturbed by the election, Roosevelt was searching for his usual solace ó a physical and mental challenge that would totally occupy him. That’s how he had dealt with every setback in his life.
The former president had agreed to a speaking tour in South America, a way to earn much-needed cash, since his own account had been depleted by his presidential bid.
He turns to an old friend, The Rev. John Zahm, a Catholic priest much enthralled by adventures. He plans an exploratory trip in the Amazon River region. Zahm settles on the route and hires Anthony Fiala as the outfitter.
Those are the first two problems. Zahm wants a trip long on comfort and medium on adventure. Fiala, who has been on two failed expeditions to the Arctic, knows nothing of South America and badly anticipates the needs of the jungle.
Roosevelt takes along two naturalists, George Cherrie and Leo Miller. They give credence to the journey and earn support from the American Museum of Natural History.
They team up with a famous and tenacious Brazilian colonel, Candido Rondon, who has been installing telegraph lines throughout the country.
If not for Rondon and his camaradas, Roosevelt and party would likely have ended up as a pile of bones floating in the detritus of the river.
By the time the expedition approaches the river, it’s obvious Zahm and Fiala cannot be part of the journey. Roosevelt plans another trip for Zahm, down tamer rivers. The older priest had raised more than eyebrows by suggesting the camaradas should carry him in a chair through the jungle.
Fiala, who has packed mustard and caviar as provisions, also gets another assignment.
Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, comes along to take care of his father, whom he fears will not survive the ordeal. Kermit has been working in Brazil and has earned a good reputation ó but the expedition proves to be the beginning of Kermit’s decline.
The travelers give away what would have been the best boats to the ones leaving for other waters. They end up burdened with heavy dugouts totally unsuitable for the repeated rapids on the river.
They further pare down their personnel and then their provisions, as it becomes obvious they have too heavy a load for the boats.
And conditions only get worse as the expedition struggles down the river.
Author Candice Millard includes not just stories of the treacherous trip, but a great deal of history, geography and biology.
It probably wasn’t necessary to go back “hundreds of millions of years ago” to describe Pangaea, the “protocontinent” and the Triassic period to explain the formation of the Andes.
And while describing the diversity and daily, desperate attempts for plants and animals to survive in the rain forest is fascinating, it is a lot of information ó it doesn’t move the story along, but it sets the scene.
Be aware, also, of lengthy descriptions of piranha attacks, bugs that jump into various orifices, bubbling bacterial infections, and oozing wounds.
More information about the Cinta Larga and Nhambiquara Indians would have been nice, but maybe there isn’t more.
Millard has extensive footnotes at the end of the book, showing how exhaustive her research has been. Also included is a bibliography and index.
What is memorable about the book, though, is that it’s not so much about Roosevelt. It’s a detailed portrait of his son, Kermit, and the Brazilian Rondon. Cherrie comes across as a compassionate and dedicated man. We don’t learn much about the camaradas beyond their names, and two horrible deaths.
Readers may come away feeling a little angry at Roosevelt for risking his life and his son’s. Dying on the river becomes more than a possibility. They lose most of their food; Indians with deadly bamboo arrows follow them invisibly; dysentery and malaria leave the men weak; and bacteria rushes into any cut, nearly killing Roosevelt.
As part of the Summer Reading Challenge, with courage as its theme, you may wonder how much of the book is about courage and how much is about selfishness and swagger. Certainly Rondon and his men are brave and loyal. Certainly Kermit risks his life over and over to advance the expedition.
But Roosevelt was ill-prepared for this trip, taking little interest in its organization and suffering the consequences. He is encouraging and supportive ó but his thirst for adventure leads to at least two deaths.
“The River of Doubt,” though unwieldy at times, is absolutely fascinating and revelatory about our former president.

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