Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
The River of Doubt

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

The River of DoubtThe River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
Candice Millard

In 1913, after his failed attempt to run for President on a third-party ticket, Theodore Roosevelt was at loose ends. He had, as usual, given the campaign his all. It was a disappointing and humiliating defeat, though the handwriting was on the wall long before the final votes were tallied.

Throughout his life, Roosevelt's answer to despair, pain and difficulty was intense physical action. As a sickly child he single-mindedly built up his strength through daily exercise. He went to the Badlands and worked as a cowboy for two years after the death of his first wife. He was a veteran of many extensive explorations, both in North America and in Africa.

Roosevelt's characteristic answer to his electoral defeat was to mount an expedition: this time, to explore unmapped areas of the Amazonian basin in South America. As ultimately planned, the expedition was to chart the course of a previously unexplored river in Brazil – the aptly named River of Doubt.

Though known as a big game hunter, Roosevelt in his heart was a naturalist. As a child he collected plants, animals, and insects, storing the collection in his bedroom. With two young cousins he founded the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History." Entering Harvard with the intention to study to become a naturalist, he was discouraged by the almost exclusive focus on lab experimentation rather than fieldwork.

Ultimately choosing politics over science, he never lost his passion for natural history. While in the White House he invited prominent nature writer John Burroughs to visit him, and together they spent an enjoyable day birdwatching in Virginia. He supported the creation of national parks and promoted the conservation movement.

Roosevelt gained the backing of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which his father had helped to found. The Museum sponsored two naturalists to accompany him and collect specimens.

Planning for the expedition was haphazard, with Roosevelt leaving the details to others. He was preoccupied with arrangements for his two-month lecture tour of South America which would precede the expedition.

The river to be explored was an unmapped tributary of the Amazon. Its headwaters had been located by engineers building the first telegraph line into the heartland of Brazil. No one knew precisely where the river went, or where it joined with the Amazon. Between the launching point for the downriver expedition and the Amazon was only jungle – filled with headhunting indigenous tribes who had never had contact with whites. The river was so remote that an overland journey of one month with a pack train of mules was required just to reach the launching point.

The headwaters of the River of Doubt were in the central highlands of Brazil, an area encompassing 580,000 square miles. Between the highlands and the river's connection with the Amazon there was significant decrease in altitude, which meant the expedition could be certain to face treacherous rapids and possibly waterfalls along the way.

No one knew exactly what lay ahead. But after launching the expedition's heavy dugouts laden with paddlers and supplies, there was only one way out of the jungle – to go downriver.

Roosevelt's son Kermit, an experienced Africa expedition hand, accompanied him. Also along was Brazil's most famous naturalist, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.

Along the way the expedition faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their dugouts and supplies to swirling rapids and looming waterfalls; they endured starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and the murder of one within their ranks.

Roosevelt became very ill and seriously considered suicide rather than reduce the expedition's chances of survival. His son convinced him not to give up. By the time they finally reached the Amazon three and a half months later, he had lost over fifty pounds.

The Roosevelt expedition charted the course of a previously unknown tributary of the Amazon, stretching nearly a thousand miles through the rainforest of central Brazil. It was an amazing feat of wilderness exploration and survival against all odds. A subsequent expedition retracing their course disappeared in the jungle.

The River of Doubt is a gripping story; Millard makes her main characters – Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and Brazilian naturalist Rondon – come alive as they struggle with each other and with the Amazonian rainforest to survive. Highly recommended for the adventure story, the natural history of the region, and as a fascinating look into the spirit of the early twentieth century.

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