This month’s selection of Damn Good Reads isn’t incredible only because the tale packed with adventure, cannibals, and a lost group in the jungle is non-fiction, it stars a former two-term president.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, 416 pp. Doubleday
Theodore Roosevelt should have been in the White House. By all measures, on April 16, 1914, Roosevelt—the commander of the Rough Riders, the man with the “big stick,” and an orator so popular, so fiery, that spectators purchased scalped tickets just to get within 50 yards of him—should have been serving his third (non-consecutive) term as president of the United States. Instead, he was trapped deep within the Amazon rain forest, on an uncharted, never before traveled, 1000-mile long tributary of the Amazon River, receiving emergency surgery with no anesthetic on a muddy riverbank and watching a “mottled mixture of blood and foul-smelling pus” drain out of an abscess in his right leg.
The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, tracks the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition’s journey down the Rio da Dúvida. She begins the story in October 1912, just as candidate Roosevelt is in his final days of stumping for the impending presidential election. After being reelected in 1904, Roosevelt vowed that he would not seek another term, and instead groomed William Howard Taft to be his successor. But after seeing his hand-picked man serve what he deemed an ignominious four years, Roosevelt entered the 1912 presidential race; when the Republican Party refused him the nomination, Roosevelt struck out on his own as the Progressive Party candidate.
Yet, running as a third-party candidate all but assured the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, the White House. While generally boisterous and optimistic, the embarrassment of defeat left Roosevelt holed up at his home in Sagamore Hill, displaying his trademark knack for turning despondent quickly when events did not pan out in his favor. Throughout his life, Roosevelt responded to such occasions with tests of physical willpower. “When confronted with sadness or setbacks that were beyond his power to overcome, Roosevelt instinctively sought out still greater tests, losing himself in punishing physical hardship and danger,” writes Millard. Indeed, Roosevelt demanded of himself an emotional purge to combat his shortcomings, the kind that would leave him with some sort of tangible, physical trophy to point to in the aftermath.
Millard spends several chapters laying out the timeline during which Roosevelt would decide to embark on a relatively mild speaking tour of the South American continent—by invitation from Argentina’s Museo Social—and then a tour of the charted tributaries of the Amazon River, which would ultimately morph into a fool’s trek down an unexplored tributary.
This background information, while tedious at times, never drags or bores. Millard sets the scene by focusing on the characters of Roosevelt’s expedition, which serves to propel the narrative along while offering readers valuable glimpses at of each of the men who will ultimately descend the Rio da Dúvida with Roosevelt.
When Rondon announces that the expedition must abandon the canoes and hike it out of the Amazon jungle, every man for himself, Roosevelt demands that Cherrie and Kermit leave him behind to die.
There’s Roosevelt’s second-oldest son, Kermit, a late addition to the expedition charged by his mother with the care of his father’s life; George Cherrie, a naturalist who had spent more than half his life collecting birds in South America, hired by the American Museum of Natural History and charged with getting Roosevelt back to the United States alive; and the Brazilian co-commander of the expedition, Cândido Rondon, a man who, since age 25, had established telegraph lines in the western overland of Brazil, and whose units came back decimated from multi-year tours of the Brazilian interior—much of it unmapped and still controlled by hostile Indian tribes. (In 1909, the year Rondon happened upon the River of Doubt, his expedition returned after seven months in shambles; “the men who were still alive,” Millard writes, “were so weak that many of them could hardly crawl,” and all the men had parasitic insects “wriggling under their skin.”)
The Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition would experience similar hardships. Having abandoned the boats brought with them from the U.S. during the overland journey through western Brazil, Roosevelt’s team were relegated to using water-logged dugout canoes to navigate the twisting, rapids-choked tributary. Multiple times they were forced to portage the canoes through the dense Amazonian jungle, ever surrounded by the dangers of poisonous snakes and dart frogs and the Cinta Larga Indians. The Cinta Larga, a tribe with which Rondon had never had contact, had never seen white men before this expedition in 1914. Able to remain invisible in the jungle, they could have easily slaughtered Roosevelt’s entire expedition at night while they camped on the river’s edge, using their war clubs and five-feet-long arrows. Had the Cinta Larga done so, it’s a good bet that Roosevelt would have been eaten: the Cinta Larga were cannibals, and ate the flesh of their defeated enemies in elaborate tribal ceremonies.
But the threat of the Cinta Larga was peripheral. A rapidly dwindling supply of rations, unease and treachery among the Brazilian camaradas who steered the dugout canoes, and Rondon’s insistence on a painfully-slow, but more accurate, surveying process would endanger the expedition much more. When Roosevelt gashes his right leg on an underwater rock while helping to dislodge a dugout trapped between two boulders, he soon succumbs to a fever so severe he has barely the strength to talk. When Rondon announces that the expedition must abandon the canoes and hike it out of the Amazon jungle, every man for himself, Roosevelt demands that Cherrie and Kermit leave him behind to die.
This is good nonfiction. Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, knows how to be unpretentious; she possesses a Hemingway-like propensity for simple sentences, which allows the story and its characters—freed of prose overblown with turgid diction—to envelop and take hold of readers. The River of Doubt is a book I can’t recommend enough.