The River of Doubt
By Brian K. Brecht
In May of this year we posted about Michael Canfield’s book, “Theodore Roosevelt – In the Field”, where we highlighted our new found exposure to the non-political life of Theodore Roosevelt. Since that reading we’ve continued in our fascination of Teddy and his life outside of the Oval Office.
This time, we found ourselves lost in the 2005 book from Candice Millard titled “The River Doubt”. Where “In the Field” spent most of it’s time in Roosevelt’s pre-presidential life, “River of Doubt” focuses solely on the time after his presidency. In fact, it was the loss of the presidency that eventually turned Roosevelt’s eye toward South American and an “uneventful” speaking tour through the Amazon.
Roosevelt’s 1912 presidential defeat weighted heavily on the now ex-president, and Millard sets up the desire to journey to the Amazon well, emphasizing Roosevelt was “hunkered down” at Sagmore Hill, and “the telephone, which had rung like sleigh-bells all day and half the night, was now silent”. His family was so concerned about his mental state that they dispatched Dr. Alexander Lambert, his physician to pay him a visit.
Eventually an invitation from Argentina’s Museo Social organization, a group of forward-thinking business and political figures, would entice Roosevelt enough to head south for an extended speaking tour. Aside from the soothing of a bruised ego, the trip would also afford him the chance to see his twenty three year old son Kermit.
As the trip plans are made however, opportunities to explore begin to turn a quiet speaking tour (Roosevelt brings his wife and cousin on the trip) into a plan for one last grand adventure, an expedition to map the unexplored River of Doubt, one of the many unmapped tributaries of the great Amazon River.
As with many great adventure or exploration biographies, Millard exposes the plans and preparations for the expedition. Along with specific personalities that were hired for the trip, she unravels a number of variables and poor decisions that led to a number of the difficulties Roosevelt and his team experienced during the trip. In contrast to his African expedition that had impeccable planning, this trip was sorely lacking in expertise and had a plethora of false credentials.
Though not a story that is “stranded and beyond all hope”, its not far off. The team that Roosevelt leads, along with his Brazilian co-commander Colonel Candido Rondon, experience a level of difficulty and extraordinary effort, it’s a wonder how any of them survived. At one point, on what at the time seems like his own death bed, Roosevelt says to his son, and friend George Cherrie “boys, I realize that some of us are not going to finish the journey. …I will stop here.”
The book balances the flaws that existed in Roosevelt, while once again shining a light on the determination and tenacity that was Theodore Roosevelt. A perfect companion to “In the Field”, and an enthralling journey all unto its own.