Book Shelf, Book 3- The River Of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

July 15, 2006

 

 Teddy's luckless, little-known trip makes a riveting tale

THE RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S DARKEST JOURNEY
 By Candice Millard  
 Doubledy, $26

Reviewed by MARK NEUZIL
 In 1913, after getting whipped by Woodrow Wilson in the preceding presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt went to South America to lick his wounds in what for him was the only way for a real man to respond: an arduous, grueling, exhausting (and attention-getting) biological exploration of a dangerous, unknown country. The risky, ill-planned and luckless trip nearly killed Roosevelt, his son Kermit and everyone else in the party. Three men did die – one murdered, one drowned and one left to his own devices among hostile natives in the Amazonian jungle.

First-time author Candice Millard takes the reader along for the ride on this epic adventure, which nearly all other Roosevelt biographers gloss over or ignore. At times the book reads like a potboiler; sometimes the events and narration seem so incredulous that one is left wondering "could their circumstances have been that dire?" and "how come I didn't know about this before?

Yet, despite some small reservations about the author exaggerating the dangers of the journey, this remains a fascinating account of the ex-president, his son, Brazil's most famous explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, American George Cherrie, one of the most noted naturalists of his time, and several hard-working Brazilian camaradas, three of whom don't return.

The idea for the trip came from the Rev. John Augustine Zahm, a "funny little Catholic priest" who was vain, self-important and spectacularly unqualified. Zahm did the planning; he hired a sporting goods store clerk named Anthony Fiala to be in charge of provisions and equipment. Fiala's resume included a disastrous 1903 expedition to the North Pole in which his ship was crushed in the ice and he and his men spent two frigid years awaiting rescue, "arguably making him the last person on earth to be entrusted with the planning or provisioning of a scientific expedition" to the Amazon, Millard writes.

Because of their poor planning, neither Zahm nor Fiala ended up making the most difficult part of the journey, down the previously unexplored, nearly thousand-mile-long River of Doubt, an Amazon tributary that featured white-water rapids, hostile natives, disease-carrying insects and plants and few sources of food. No one had a map, nor was a local guide employed.

Roosevelt became very ill with fever and spent part of the trip under a makeshift canopy riding in a canoe hacked out of a jungle tree, shielded from the sun and rain. The ex-president was in such bad shape by the time the expedition reached its rescuers that he had to be loaded by stretcher on the steamer home. Less than 5 years later he was dead, and his children considered the Amazon trip as a contributing factor.

Perhaps the saddest epitaph belonged to Kermit, a strapping 24-year-old whose grit and physical prowess helped keep his father alive. In many ways serving his father was the pinnacle of Kermit's life, which devolved into a spiral of alcoholism and selfloathing that ended in his tragic suicide.

Mark Neuzil is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has written several books.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue