Anyone who enjoyed Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage or any other tale of exploration and hardship will love River of Doubt. Candice Millard's new book chronicles the expedition of Theodore Roosevelt and his Brazilian co-commander, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, down one of Amazon's last unexplored tributaries in 1914-the River of Doubt. The 400-mile river trip tested every ounce of the ex-president's intellect, courage, and physical stamina. Millard's book, therefore, is more a tale of survival than adventure.
Roosevelt and his American companions were woefully unprepared for their journey. They brought boats too large to be of use on a shallow river, and had to rely instead on Indian-made dugouts-canoes designed more for local transportation on flat water than long-distanced descents through rapids. The American and Brazilain members of the group often had to portage these heavy, waterlogged boats around rapids, which cost the group both time and precious food supplies.
Food proved to be one of the most vexing problems of the journey. Much of the canned food shipped from the United States was too heavy to be carried to the expedition's launching point in the Brazilian highlands, and had to be discarded. Instead, Roosevelt hoped to augment his increasingly meager rations with game shot along the way. Unfortunately, the rain forest did not offer much bounty and the group ended up eating monkeys and piranhas to survive-creatures far more difficult to kill than deer and antelope.
If that were not enough, disease plagued the expedition at every corner. Kermit, the son of President Roosevelt, fought malaria for most of the trip and Theodore almost died when he contracted a deadly bacterial infection from a small flesh wound. Author Candice Millard does an excellent job of describing the numerous hazards confronted by the group without getting too bogged down in rain forest ecology. The book's moderate length and circumscribed subject matter make it much easier to plow through than a typical biography. With that being said, some historians may be disappointed that the book does not shed much more light on Roosevelt's political philosophies or his quest to preserve public land. Was Roosevelt an early environmentalist or simply an avid hunter and adventurer? This book does not answer that question.
It does, however, show us a side of Theodore Roosevelt's character often lacking in traditional biographies of the man: his humanity. The author describes how the ex-president shared in the work, dangers, and hardships of the journey. In one scene, she shows Roosevelt washing the clothes of his companions and in another, the sick ex-president giving away his rations to one of the expedition's "more productive" Brazilian laborers. In short, readers will walk away from this book with new-found appreciation for President Roosevelt and his undaunted courage-something often lacking in today's breed of politicians.