Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

River of Doubt

As a boy, I dreamed of becoming an adventurer. Sometimes, I saw myself canoing through North American forests. Others I envisioned myself traveling across remote deserts. You can see that my aspirations were very literary. I read tales of the explorers and novels of stranded travelers depending on their own ingenuity to survive.  I even read through two very large volumes of memoirs of Henry Stanley's expedition to rescue Dr. David Livingston in Africa.

My actual outdoor skills were in reality rather limited, I'm afraid, and I depended on my good friend Billy Wilson to take care of me whenever we entered "the woods." Even Billy couldn't help me when, as adults, we took my young daughters on a canoe expedition in Pennsylvania when I ended up dumping 10-year-old Gena in the cold river. He did make a fire to help her dry out. I think of Billy whenever I read about outdoor adventure and I think he will appreciate River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.

Teddy Roosevelt, an immensely popular president, chose to run for a third term in 1912, this time not as a Republican but as a third-party candidate representing the Progressive Party. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in a landslide and Roosevelt took the blame from his Republican supporters for putting a Democrat in the White House. Out of power, in disfavor with his own supporters, and facing the loss of activity and connection that losing the presidency meant,  Roosevelt retreated to his home at Sagamore Hill, Long Island and began to come to terms with his new reality. He was 54 years old.

Throughout his life, Teddy Roosevelt had faced adversity and challenges through determined activity, physical exertion, and adventure. As a youth who suffered from asthma, he had traveled out west to toughen himself up. He boxed in college and later, after the death of his first wife, he returned to the west for two years of ranching. During his presidency, he had participated in one long safari in Africa (traveling with his son  Kermit). It was in character that in the winter of 1913, Teddy Roosevelt decided to help lead an extraordinary adventure, mapping uncharted territory in the Amazon basin of Brazil. The conditions would be difficult and dangerous. The possible routes took them hundreds of miles away from known settlements. Climate and natural conditions could prove deadly. Tribes of Indians, some with little or no contact with Europeans even after four centuries of European settlement in South America, could be hostile. The goal of the expedition was to follow an unmapped tributary of the Amazon river called the River of Doubt from its source to wherever it met the main river. Kermit would again accompany him.

This book describes this expedition beginning with Roosevelt's electoral defeat, through the planning process and preparations and finally the journey itself.  In so doing, it shows us Teddy Roosevelt, post-presidency, continuing to assert his views on politics, humanity, and nature through action. In doing this, Millard also introduces us to descriptions of the Amazon jungle, and provides explanations for how it developed and how it functions that are scientifically and esthetically very satisfying. There is action, suspense, and vivid retelling of remarkable physical bravery and courage by Roosevelt, his son, and others on the expedition.

An important story in itself is the character of Candido Rondon, a Brazilian explorer who was co-leader of the exhibit, responsible for the safety of a former president of the United States. Rondon had special interest in and concern for the Amazon Indians and very likely it was his refusal to allow his team to inflict violence on the Indians, even in self-defence, that saved the expedition.

The special relationship that Roosevelt shared with his son Kermit is also a major theme. In some ways both father and son felt that they were on the expedition to look out for the other. Kermit suffers from unrelenting malaria and dreams of being reunited with his new fiance. Teddy is badly injured and becomes ill as well. He nearly dies in this adventure and Millard's description of his eventual return and recovery were suspenseful even if we do know how the story ends. Millard also succeeds in putting this entire episode of his life in a family and historical context.

This book is too good to overlook. It is a biography. It is a page-turning adventure story. It is a wondrous description of a beautiful and unfamiliar part of the world. It is also an exploration of the American spirit and worldview at the beginning of the twentieth century and an insightful look at teamwork, leadership, and determination. It is a thoughtful exploration of individual responses to challenge, failure, and redemption.

Reading River of Doubt led me to considerations of presidential politics, South American history and culture, and the challenges of extreme outdoor adventure. It also renewed my interest in Teddy Roosevelt and what his leadership meant to America. It made me wonder just how Billy Wilson and I would have managed. (I believe Billy would have been all right.)

Young Gena might be glad that her unfortunate dunking took place in relatively safe waters. If it had happened on the River of Doubt, there would have been piranha in the water and Indians with poisoned arrows on shore. I hesitate to recommend this book to Kathryn who was also on the infamous childhood canoe trip.  Given her enjoyment of outdoor adventure, she might just take off on her own trip down the River of Doubt. Emma would have much to say about the history of rubber trees and how they were exported to Malaysia from the Amazon leading to a worldwide economic and colonial dynamic. As for me, these are adventures best enjoyed in the pages of books.

River of Doubt had been a candidate for Best Book of the Year 2009 from Bonnie and David and was sent to me as the best "non-fiction" book of the year at Christmastime. It deserves the award and deserves to be read and discussed. I look forward to sharing it with Billy and Gena. Anyone else?