RIVER OF DOUBT

Candice Millard

This involved tale of exploration succeeds remotely. When reading J.H. Parry’s two books about Renaissance exploration of the oceans, I was amused when Parry would correct the location (navigation) of the place because the ocean currents did not conform to the records stated in the original sources. River of Doubt does not make such corrections. I do not have a sense that the author has traveled along the river.

This tale presents Theodore Roosevelt as someone who is a reckless adventurer and somewhat of a flake. No one knew the type and quantity of goods for the exhibition until three weeks along the trail. Someone looks. They are carrying Rhine Water, along with lots of other useless stuff. Much of it is abandoned. Neither Roosevelt nor Rondon (Brazilian) inspected or determined the anything was wrong until underway too far into the exhibition – lives have been damaged or lost, and will be. Note also, on this long trip into the jungle, Roosevelt has a bum leg; his son, Kermit, malaria.

It seems completely improbable Roosevelt would have gone off without reading anything about exploring rivers. During his life time books were written by such explorers: Richard Burton (Tanzania, Nile, 1860); Richard Speek (Nile, Lake Victoria, @1860); Henry Stanley (Nile, Congo River 1880); John Wesley Powell (Grand Canyon 1870) Certainly, Roosevelt knew that quinine inhibited the transmission of malaria. River of Doubt finally mentions quinine (p. 250) but the standard medical practice for prescribing quinine in 1914 is not given in the text. Roosevelt, himself, only had to ask his good friend, Leonard Wood, for advice. [About that page in the tale Roosevelt is hot with a malarial condition.] I might conclude that Roosevelt recklessly neglected quinine, or the author dropped quinine into the story as an afterthought.

The author has told a tale of the Central Amazon. Because journals, diaries, specie collections and exhibition records are incomplete or missing, she tells about the geography, flora and fauna very well. These environmental chapters, extending almost as far as the Amazon River is broad, carry the book and make it readable. She cannot tell of the full horrors of the place, except if half of any exhibition party returns, it has been a successful venture. The environmental chapters allow for the calendar to proceed. It replaces what might be available if all the sources were available: March 3, 1914, the party stopped her; disagreement between X and Y. This is the outcome. My only question is about vicinage: Are the flora and fauna described unique to the River of Doubt or are they found everywhere else in the Amazon basin?

An issue issue of biography arises from the text. It is not fully explored. Roosevelt was 53 years old. He suffered personal/psychological set backs when he lost the elections of 1912. Until that year Roosevelt had no defining potentially defeating events since his Rough Rider Days, when he was 40 years old. He takes up this exploration in an effort “to forge his own happiness.” (276) Yet at 54 he is injured, old, fat and out of shape. He knows a year of hardship and disease await him. He should not go within 500 miles of the River of Doubt. No one tells him not to go. Yet, was Roosevelt incapable of “forging his own happiness” in anyway, other than the means he devised in youth?

The answer to this question is obvious. Roosevelt physically and mentally failed. He also created conditions which led to his early death.

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