Thursday, August 03, 2006

Book Review: The River of Doubt

THIS IS MY 200th POST!

Candice Miller, A River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Doubleday, 2005).

Millard tells the story of Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted Amazon basin river in 1914. Following his failed bid to retake the White House in 1912, running as a third party candidate for the Bull Moose Party, Roosevelt was looking for something exciting. He was invited by an Argentine museum to give a series of lectures. As he prepared for his trip, he joined up with an old friend, Father Zahm (a Catholic Priest who had traveled in the Amazon). Zahm was hoping to put together a trip on his own into the Amazon. Before departing south, Roosevelt trusted Zahm and his team to take care of the details of an interior expedition. Zahm enlisted Anthony Fiala, a sporting goods clerk who had lead a disastrous trip into the Artic, to be in charge of supplies. The American Museum of Natural History encouraged and helped Roosevelt recruit a team of naturalists (George Cherrie and Leo Miller) with the hopes that they could add to their collections. Also joining the team was Roosevelt’s son Kermit who was living in South America building railroads. Kermit’s mother asked him to take care of his father, which he agreed to do even though he had recently become engaged.

The trip that Father Zahm had planned was not too risky, involving going over territory that had already been explored. However, once they got to South America, they were hooked up with Canidido Rondon, a Brazilian Army Officer who had been building a telegraph line across the nation. Having discovered a river that was previously unknown (it was called the River of Doubt, now known as the Rio Roosevelt) in a 1909 expedition, he longed to go back and explore the river. Although skeptical at first, he soon realized his opportunity and the expedition became known as the “Roosevelt Rondon Expedition.”

Rondon spent much of his life in the Amazon jungle, mapping and exploring and building telegraph lines. He had lost many men to the jungle: to disease, to the hardness of life, and to Indian attacks. In 1909, when he discovered the River of Doubt, he and his men nearly starved. In the river were many piranhas whose sharp teeth cut their fishing lines. In desperation, one of his lieutenants’s tried dynamiting fish (I like this story better than the guy fishing with dynamite with the game warden). He tossed a stick of dynamite into a pool above a falls and then collected the fish below. His hands being full of fish, he stuck one of the stunned fish in his mouth while he continued to collect others. The fish woke up, took off a part of his tongue, and he nearly bled to death. (page 79)

Although a tough man, Rondon showed restraint with dealing with the native populations of the Amazon, refusing to allow his men to shoot at the Indians even in self-defense. Roosevelt and Rondon respected each other and got along well (they had to converse primarily in French or have Kermit Roosevelt interpret). Roosevelt always insisted on showing difference to his Brazilian co-leader, respecting his customs and wisdom. One example was on the overland journey to the river, in which Rondon brought out two chairs and gave them to Roosevelt and Zahm, Zahn immediately accept the chair, but Roosevelt refused to seat unless Rondon also sat in a chair. (p. 106). The Roosevelts (Theodore and Kermit) quickly won the admiration of all the Brazilians including the camanados (natives who worked for the expedition), for their hard work and willingness to sacrifice. Zahm was the first member of the American team to be “sacrificed.” Feeling himself privileged, he insisted that Rondon have four Indians carry him in a chair, saying that Indians don’t mind carrying a priest. Roosevelt agreed with Rondon, who was incensed at Zahm’s request, and the priest was sent back. (p. 105-106) In all, only three Americans made the trip down the River of Doubt.

The trip to the river was difficult. Roosevelt’s expedition had not been properly supplied for such a wilderness journey. In addition, the shear volume of gear was problematic. As they made the journey, they kept reducing what they were carrying. They also made a decision to split the team, with one group going down the Papagaio River (a still dangerous but previously explored river). The three Americans made the descent on the River of Doubt were Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt and George Cherrie. The river turned out to be more difficult than previous anticipated. There were long stretches of rapids, which had to be portaged by building long roads through the jungle. They lost boats and provisions and even one man in rapids they attempted to run whitewater. They became sick with malaria and other diseases. They even had to deal with one difficult camanados, Julio, who had proved to be lazy and untrustworthy (he was caught on two occasions stealing food). One day on a long portage, he killed another of the team members. Roosevelt wanted them to hunt Julio down and kill him. “He who kills must die,” the former president insisted. (p. 291) Rondon demanded that Brazilian laws be obeyed. Brazil had no capital punishment and Julio would have to be taken back. However, Rondon was not willing to stop to pick Julio up three days later when they saw him on the banks, insisting that he was busy with his survey of the river. He did send a group back to retrieve him, but they never found Julio and it was assumed that he died in the jungle, perhaps from the natives who had been watching the expedition from a distance and the safety of the jungle. (p. 305)

The expedition finally made it through the difficult parts of the river. Roosevelt became very sick from an infection in the leg and many were worried he would die. He also considered suicide as a way to save the expedition. However, they finally met up with rubber workers who helped them quickly make their way down the Madeira River and back home. Roosevelt recovered (although weakened by the trip, he died in 1919). The Cinta Larga Indians who watched the expedition from a distance (they never saw them, only abandoned villages, etc), stayed away from the encroachment of civilization until the 1960s. (p. 349-350) Kermit took his own life in 1943, while stationed in Alaska. Rondon lived a long life, dying in 1958 at the age of 92. A few years before his death, Brazil named a large territory (94,000 square miles) Rondonia in his honor. He’s still a hero in Brazil.

Candiace Millard, an editor for National Geographic, is a wonderful storyteller and writer. She does a graceful job of telling the adventures while interweaving details about region’s history and natural settings. This is a good read; I recommend it.

26 comments:

  1. If I ever need to put a stunned fish in my mouth (though I cannot imagine it) I will definitely remember not to put the mouth in first......EEEWWWWW!!


    Thanks for the compliment, Sage. The shelves need to be thinned out of both knick-knacks and books!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I saw a preview of a special on this very subject on PBS a couple weeks ago. I'm guessing I probably missed the airing of it already but it looked fascinating. The book certainly falls into my genre of interest and I'll have to add it to my list.

    Sometimes I wish that the era of exploration still existed today. Then when I read about Roosevelt's difficulties along this trip and his contemplation of suicide, Fairfield, Iowa doesn't seem all that bad. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Kenju, yeah, putting a live fish in your mouth is a bit crazy--at least when you eat raw fish, it's already flayed.

    Ed, I'm sure you would enjoy the book. The Amazon is a difficult place for non-natives to live, as the group discovered. And I don't think Fairfield has a many mosquitoes or deadly snakes (one of which struck at Roosevelt and the vemon ran down his boot).

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm always looking for a new book to read, and this sounds like a great one! Michele sent me today

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had an awfully tough time in my college history course. Who knows why I could barely get a C but had an A in calculus? Anyway...Theodore Roosevelt was the only person I did well with. For some reason I liked him...he held my interest.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sage, do you take notes while you are reading?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Wow! What a thorough review! Good job.

    Here from Michele's. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Who is Michelle and why does she send people to your blog in her place?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I just noticed the subtitle. Happy two hundreth post. From experience, the next 537 only get easier.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Lisa, it's a good book

    Deana, I like TR too, and even more so after reading this book, even though Rondon really came off as being more gentlemanly than Roosevelt in the jungle!

    Murf, yes I take notes when I read. I also write in my books--putting notes in the back for future reference.

    Ed, Michele is at the bottom of my blog list and she has games to get people to visit other folks blogs--which is how I've met most of the people on my list. Wow, you already have that many post? Wow, I'm humbled to be in your presence!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Another to add to my list!

    I love your reviews. By the time I sit down at my computer to post or surf my brain seems so fuzzy that I can't seem to type out a good review. Have a few I'm ready to add soon...

    ReplyDelete
  12. Happy blogaversary, Sage. May we be blessed by your wisdom for significantly more than another 200 entries.

    Thank you for lighting the fires of reading in your readers. I'll bring this along with me the next time I hit the library.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi, here from Michele's this afternoon.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I truly love it when Michele sends me over to a blog that I am not familiar with... Like yours! I am an avid reader, and I'm always looking for new books to check out. I will be back soon to check out your advise! This was a great review. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  15. So glad I popped by from Michele's, great review,I look forward to more. Thanks and have a great day.

    ReplyDelete
  16. An intriguing review of this book.
    I'm glad Michele sent me here via the meet and greet. Hello

    ReplyDelete
  17. Wow!!! That sounds like an amazing book!! I'm always looking for good books to read so I think I'll add this one to my list.
    Michele sent me today.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This does sound like a good read. A book one might not want to put down. Anyway that fish in mouth story is great! [though not for the person it happened to]

    Happy 200th post! And many more to come. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. i bet the book is awesome. I just saw a documentary about his on television recently.

    Michele sent me

    ReplyDelete
  20. how interesting.. here via Michele.. congrats on 200!

    ReplyDelete
  21. LOL, I don't know enough about Michigan to make fun and I actually like NC...

    ReplyDelete
  22. Sounds like a book I want to go check out! Here via Michele!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Did you take notes and write in books even before you had a blog?

    ReplyDelete
  24. Murf, yes, It's been a long term habit.

    ReplyDelete
  25. How did this habit start? Do you use pencil or pen?

    ReplyDelete