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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey    by Candice Millard order for
River of Doubt
by Candice Millard
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt vied for and lost a third-term presidency. Roosevelt entered New York's Madison Square Garden to tumultuous cheers, his left arm waving a 50-page manuscript, his right arm hanging disabled by his side. Only two weeks before while campaigning in Milwaukee, WI, an assassin's bullet was deterred by a heavy army overcoat, the manuscript, and a steel spectacle case in his right breast pocket. Roosevelt shouted to the crowd, 'It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!' From his youth, the Rough Rider was known for his drive, stamina, and ability to overcome physical weaknesses, such as debilitating asthma, extreme myopia, a disabling fall from a horse, and a trolley accident. Roosevelt expected, and instilled, the same passion for overcoming adversity - physical, mental and emotional hardship - in family members. He handled despair by taking on an adventure, no matter how trying.

So it followed after his presidential third-run loss, when he was invited as a guest by Argentina's Museo Social and its president Emilio Frers for a tour of speeches in South America, he agreed. The extra drawing cards were: the opportunity to visit his second son, twenty-three year old Kermit (working in Brazil), and the fulfillment of a dream to explore the Amazonian jungle. New York Catholic priest, Father Zahm, had been waiting for years to commit to a South American adventure with his friend Roosevelt. Zahm was to be the expedition quartermaster and proceeded to hire sporting store clerk Anthony Fiala. Roosevelt changed Zahm's plan for a 'five-tame rivers itinerary' to a more challenging feat, following the suggestion of scientist Leo Miller to proceed with a 'scientific discovery and historical resonance', on 'a river of mystery of the Brazilian wilderness'.

Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, commander of the Brazilian Telegraph Lines Commission, discovered the beginnings of a river during a 1909 work excursion, and christened it the Rio da Duvida (The River of Doubt). Along with well-known ornithologist George Cherie, Miller, Roosevelt and son Kermit, Zahm, Fiala, Swiss handyman Jacob Sigg, various camaradas, boats, and pack animals, the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition was launched. The journey began by boat, switching to muleback to cross into Brazil from the Paraguay River to a telegraph station and frontier town named Tapirapoan, then into the Brazilian Highlands. With mud slicks created by heavy rainstorms, it wasn't long before the pack animals began bucking off their heavy loads of cargo. Supplies were lost, and the jungle became treacherous. The high, thick canopy blocked out the sky. River travel was hampered by extreme rapids, waterfalls, and whirlpools. There were thousands of disease-causing insects, monkeys, anacondas up to 500 lbs. in weight, snakes, piranha, huge pirarara (catfish), and the piraiba - nine feet in length and weighing more than 300 lbs. - that preys on men. Territorial Indian tribes, who might attack with poison arrows, added to the hazards.

The greatest threat to adventurers is 'lost in the jungle'. Willard quotes several sources on this - 'In the mid-twentieth century, Polish explorer and writer Arkady Fiedler wrote of the dangers of becoming lost in the Amazon. 'Many cases have been known of travelers and explorers returning from its green labyrinth to become chronic patients of sanatoria, or even not returning at all. They have simply disappeared in the forest like stones in water. The jungle is jealous and voracious ... Of all the possible deaths man can die in the jungle, the most dreaded is that which results from being lost.'' Englishman H.M. Tomlinson stated a few years before the Roosevelt expedition, 'The forest of the Amazons is not merely trees and shrubs. It is not land. It is another element. Its inhabitants are arborean; they have been fashioned for life in that medium as fishes to the sea and birds to the air. Its green apparition is persistent, as the sky is and the ocean. In months of travel it is the horizon which the traveler cannot reach.'

Candice Millard, a former writer and editor at National Geographic magazine, makes her book debut here, not with a splash, but with something more like a storm at sea. The River of Doubt is a magnificent account of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's excursion into the dark and dense Amazonian jungles. The author's subject matter is thoroughly researched and exciting in its focus on an injury that put Roosevelt's life in jeopardy. This 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition changed the map of the western hemisphere forever - and I think its story would make an excellent TV documentary.

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