River Of Doubt

I just finished a super cool book that satisfied the history nerd in me.  The River of Doubt by Candice Millard traces Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration down a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil in the early 20th century.

First off, I am quite obviously a history buff, and I didn’t know Roosevelt had ever done this.  I knew he was an outdoorsman, is known for starting the nation’s national park system, and liked to go big game hunting in places like Africa, but I never knew he almost died in Brazil.  Perhaps it is because Roosevelt took the trip after he was president, and we tend to forget that former presidents continue to live after they’ve left office.

The book was a very quick read and did a wonderful job highlighting how completely unprepared the group of men was for this trip.  It was mostly because they plain didn’t know what they were going to run into.  No one had ever traveled the length of this river before, so they didn’t know how long it was, where it would end up, or what kind of journey it would be.  Their equipment was totally inappropriate for their environment as was the food they packed.  I am amazed that they made it out in any condition at all.  I don’t think people today could do it.

It got me thinking about how different people’s thinking was a hundred years ago.  These men had little to no information about where they were going.  Men in New York sat around planning this trip based on the experiences of a failed Polar explorer.  What made that seem like a good idea?  They sailed for days down to South America only to find out they didn’t know what they were doing.  Once the group started down the river, they couldn’t turn back.  It was impossible to walk through the rainforest or go against the rapids on the river.  They had to keep going forward even when they were almost certain that they were going to die.  I don’t think anyone today would undertake such a trip with so little information.  I don’t think many of us could imagine going into an area where no one else had ever been before.  We’d consider it crazy if not impossible.  But these men not only did it, but were eager for the opportunity.  That difference in thinking fascinates me.  It’s only very recently in history that the whole world has been known to everyone like it is now, yet we can’t imagine it differently.

While I really liked The River of  Doubt, I got really frustrated with the scientific filler that distracts from the story.  The author, Candice Millard, is a writer for National Geographic magazine, and it is painfully apparent.  She is a good writer, but it started to feel like either she didn’t have enough historical material to use or couldn’t break out of her geographical/environmental comfort zone.  She went into bountiful detail on Pangea, plate tectonics, and the evolution of plants.  At first it was helpful, but it quickly started to feel like filler and fluff to the actual storyline.  By the end, I was a little confused on what her main point was–Roosevelt’s expedition or the sophistication of the Amazonian ecosystem.

Here’s an interview with Millard on NPR about The River of Doubt.  It gives a great synopsis of the book and just a little taste of Roosevelt’s adventure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: