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.

EXPLORATION

Primarily a writer of fiction, I read a lot of history. One group (area) (field) of books always interests me: Exploration of the earth beginning with the Portuguese and Spanish and finishing in the Twentieth Century. A lot of usual stuff happens: In a sixteenth a guy got parted from a Spanish expedition in Florida, and he walked west to Spanish settlements in Mexico.

Exploration and writing a story are similar. There’s a starting point. The vessel sail in one medium on blue or if it is snow, white. Paper is usually write for the author. Like the author an explorer sort of knows where he’s headed. Neither writer nor explorer know exactly how to get there. A lot of skill is required. Once the writer and explorer believe the destination is reached, they like to call it quits. Success is not always evident. Remember Columbus sailed for India and ended up in North America. Look at the first draft of any story. How close to finishing is the writer? Getting home, completing the story – that’s the rub.

Recently read is L.H. Neatby, The Quest of the Northwest Passage, chock full of facts, names and places with many maps that don’t give all the names of the places mentioned in the text. When reading a book of exploration or discovery, it is good to know where the expedition is: Glendale, Arizona or Glendale, California. Can anyone tell me where the Great Fish River is? Having read the book, I may know. But I may not.

Next, it is not enough to say that Eskimos in the early days (1600 to 1700s) were murderers and thieves without giving a brief background of their society and culture: Life is hard near the Arctic. Did the explorers act this way, or that? I was unaware until late in the book, that a translator who learned to speak the natives’ language in Labrador was understood by Eskimos near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, at least 2000 miles away.

Neatby’s book is otherwise well-presented. It benefits from shortness, 200 pages, no Index. But brevity diminishes the tales. Trapped in ice like Shakleton at the South Pole 60 years later, Captain Collinson secured his ship in the Arctic flow. Morale of the crew was excellent especially after the men built, next to the ship, a billiards table from ice and available materials and played until the ice broke. The reader needs more than 250 words about Captain Collinson.

The text requires an interest in exploration and Canadian history; it is not geared toward the general reader. But the subject matter is compelling with one caveat: Every explorer is cold, frozen, gets frost bitten or ends up frozen to death. This is a welcome book to read during the hot summer months.

The following are exceptionally readable and authoritative books about exploration, the persons involved and the peoples they met:

Carl Sauer: a) Sixteenth Century North America, b) Seventeenth Century North America, c) The Early Spanish Main

JH Parry: a) Discovery of the Sea, b) The Age of Reconnoissance, c) other books

CR Boxer: Histories of the Dutch and Portuguese Empires.

William Goetzmann: a) Exploration and Empire, b) Army Exploration in the American West

Alan Villiers: a) Captain Cook. There are many biographies of Captain Cook. This one is well written. The author is a sailor and has sailed in a ship like the ones Cook piloted, as well as many smaller ships and boats that Cook sailed. There is some technical sailing lingo in it which is not obnoxious. I’m not a sailor and never will be. I will not master the terms or fully understand, always what was happening or why. Although incomprehensible, these sentences and clauses did not get into my general understanding. Despite that, I can only conclude that I like this book because I like to be teased.