Anacondas, huge snakes found in the Amazon River and its tributaries, can weigh up to 500 pounds. That fact and many others embedded in this marvelously atmospheric travel narrative are here for the reader's asking and edification in Millard's important contribution to the complete biographical record of the great, dynamic Teddy Roosevelt. TR, it will be remembered, attempted a third term as president in 1912, only to make certain of a Democratic victory. Licking his wounds, and reverting to his typical method of "seeking solace from heartbreaks and frustration" by testing his physical endurance, he embarked on an Amazon exploration adventure. A set of odd circumstances led to the River of Doubt as the choice of venue, a large tributary of the giant river that up to that point had been little explored. What with suffering from fever and infection, Roosevelt nearly died on the trip; but live through it he did, and readers of both American history and travel narratives will take delight in living through these exciting pages.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
“A rich, dramatic tale that ranges from the personal to the literally earth-shaking.” —Janet Maslin,
The New York Times
“[A] fine account . . . There are far too many books in which a travel writer follows in the footsteps of his or her hero—and there are far too few books like this, in which an author who has spent time and energy ferreting out material from archival sources weaves it into a gripping tale.” —
The Washington Post
“[N]o frills, high-adventure writing . . . Millard’s sober account is as claustrophobic as a walk through the densest jungle, and as full of vigor as Roosevelt himself.”
About the Author
CANDICE MILLARD is a former writer and editor at
National Geographic magazine. She lives in Kansas City.
From The Washington Post
Just try to imagine it: George W. Bush loses re-election by a landslide and, undeterred by the humiliation of it all, sets off on a journey of unspeakable danger and hardship into the darkest depths of the Amazon jungle. There would be a media circus the likes of which the world has never seen. Picture the TV crews following in his wake, tripping over chemical toilets, generators and satellite phones. In these times of media gurus and spin-doctoring, we would write off the expedition as a stunt, a way of stealing the limelight from his rival's victory.
Rewind almost a century, to November 1912. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents in American history, is crushed at the polls by Woodrow Wilson after two terms in office (this was before the two-term rule). Roosevelt is 54 years of age, 5'5" tall, weighs more than 200 pounds and when speaking sounds "as if he had just taken a sip of helium." He's shunned by his high-society Republican friends for having run as a third-party candidate, and is generally lampooned by everyone else for losing by such a wide margin. What does he do? Sets off into the Brazilian jungle to venture up an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, known as "The River of Doubt," which has given Candice Millard the title of her fine account of the expedition.
For the indefatigable Roosevelt, the adventure was not a media stunt, nor the start to a long comeback campaign. It was a form of self-imposed therapy. Roosevelt had been a pallid, sickly child. He had overcome asthma and early illness by throwing himself headlong into physical challenge. Whenever hit by despair, he collected himself and embarked on what he termed "the strenuous life." There was no question about Roosevelt's stamina. While campaigning for the 1912 election, he had been shot in the chest by a Bavarian immigrant. Although wounded (one bullet was five inches inside him), Roosevelt insisted on delivering the address. Holding up his text so that the terrified audience could glimpse the holes in it, he shouted, "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!" As far as he was concerned, a resounding political whipping called for a fabulous feat. He was invited to Latin America to deliver a series of political speeches. It was a mildly uninteresting proposition, for he claimed to detest public speaking, but the thought of jungle adventure was a potent incentive. That his third son, Kermit, was living in Brazil at the time made the idea of South America all the more enticing.
The expedition was to be led jointly by Roosevelt and Brazil's most celebrated explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon. Kermit was invited to participate, too, and he readily accepted despite his recent engagement. Another leading member was the naturalist George Cherrie, who had spent 30 years exploring the Amazon.
A journey of 400 miles took them across the Brazilian Highlands to the Amazon basin. Three years earlier, while exploring the region, Rondon had discovered a twisting, foaming waterway. With no clue as to where it went -- or if it went anywhere at all -- he christened it Rio da Duvida, "The River of Doubt."
From the outset the name must have seemed inappropriate; "The River of Execution" would have been more fitting. The stream was a surging passage of rapids and boiling white water, the banks of which hid enraged Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows. As one who has endured months of adversity in the Amazon, I can vouch that jungle hardship strips a man of his defenses. The enemy is all around: anacondas, piranhas, caimans, sweat bees, disease, hunger, fever and -- worst of all -- the uncertainty of knowing when, how or if it will come to an end.
But for Roosevelt, the jungle also provided the therapy he sought, making his usual world of American politics seem distant and trivial. The endless succession of calamities (resulting from ill-planning and sheer bad luck) would have been enough to distract the most disciplined mind. Notable setbacks included terrible illness and the loss of canoes and supplies to the perfidious rapids. By the end of it, the party was so worn down that even the slowest advance was an ordeal. The team members were emaciated, crippled by disease and fatigue and trapped by rapids -- Roosevelt as much as anyone else. One night George Cherrie, the naturalist and Amazonian expert, took a good look at the sweat-soaked figure before him. He had little hope, he confided in his diary, that Theodore Roosevelt would survive until morning. The specter of death hovered over a man who faded in and out of delirium, reciting over and over a couplet from Coleridge: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree."
Roosevelt pulled through, and The River of Doubt reminds one of the man himself -- thorough, robust, extremely knowledgeable and triumphant. There are far too many books in which a travel writer follows in the footsteps of his or her hero -- and there are far too few books like this, in which an author who has spent time and energy ferreting out material from archival sources weaves it into a truly gripping tale.
Reviewed by Tahir Shah
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The line outside Madison Square Garden started to form at 5:30 p.m., just as an orange autumn sun was setting in New York City on Halloween Eve, 1912. The doors were not scheduled to open for another hour and a half, but the excitement surrounding the Progressive Party's last major rally of the presidential campaign promised a packed house. The party was still in its infancy, fighting for a foothold in its first national election, but it had something that the Democrats had never had and the Republicans had lately lost, the star attraction that drew tens of thousands of people to the Garden that night: Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents in his nation's history, had vowed never to run again after winning his second term in the White House in 1904. But now, just eight years later, he was not only running for a third term, he was, to the horror and outrage of his old Republican backers, running as a third-party candidate against Democrats and Republicans alike.
Roosevelt's decision to abandon the Republican Party and run as a Progressive had been bitterly criticized, not just because he was muddying the political waters but because he still had a large and almost fanatically loyal following. Roosevelt was five feet eight inches tall, about average height for an American man in the early twentieth century, weighed more than two hundred pounds, and had a voice that sounded as if he had just taken a sip of helium, but his outsized personality made him unforgettable--and utterly irresistible. He delighted in leaning over the podium as though he were about to snatch his audience up by its collective collar; he talked fast, pounded his fists, waved his arms, and sent a current of electricity through the crowd. "Such unbounded energy and vitality impressed one like the perennial forces of nature," the naturalist John Burroughs once wrote of Roosevelt. "When he came into the room it was as if a strong wind had blown the door open."
Not surprisingly, Roosevelt was proving to be dangerous competition for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to say nothing of President William Howard Taft, the lackluster Republican incumbent whom Roosevelt had hand-picked to be his successor in the White House four years earlier. It was a bitterly contested race, and Roosevelt hoped that this rally, strategically scheduled just a week before election day, could help swing the vote in his favor.
Before the doors even opened, more than a hundred thousand people were swarming the sidewalks and choking the surrounding cobblestone streets. Men and boys nimbly wove their way through the crowd, boldly hawking tickets in plain sight of a hundred uniformed policemen. The scalpers had their work cut out for them selling tickets in the churning throng. Days earlier the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party in honor of its tenacious leader, had posted a no more tickets sign, but brokers and street-corner salesmen had continued to do a brisk business. Dollar seats went for as much as seven dollars--roughly $130 in today's money--and the priciest tickets in the house could set the buyer back as much as a hundred dollars. On the chaotic black market, however, even experienced con men could not be sure what they had actually bought. When Vincent Astor, son of financier John Jacob Astor, arrived at his box, he found it already occupied by George Graham Rice, lately of Blackswell's Island--then one of New York's grimmest penitentiaries. When the police escorted him out, Rice complained bitterly that he had paid ten dollars for the two choice seats.
More than two thousand people tried to make it into the arena by bypassing the line and driving to the gate in a hired carriage or one of Henry Ford's open-air Model T's. But this tactic did not work for everyone. Even Roosevelt's own sister Corinne was turned away at the gate.
"For some unexplained reason the pass which had been given to me that night for my motor was not accepted by the policeman in charge, and I, my husband, my son Monroe, and our friend Mrs. Parsons were obliged to take our places in the cheering, laughing, singing crowd," she later wrote. "How it swayed and swung! how it throbbed with life and elation! how imbued it was with an earnest party ambition, and yet, with a deep and genuine religious fervor. Had I lived my whole life only for those fifteen minutes during which I marched toward the Garden already full to overflowing with my brother's adoring followers, I should have been content to do so." Caught up in the moment, fifty-one-year-old Corinne finally made it into the arena by climbing a fire escape.
Theodore Roosevelt, the object of all the furor, had nearly as much trouble trying to reach Madison Square Garden as his sister. The police had blocked off Twenty-seventh Street from Madison to Fourth Avenue for his car, but when his black limousine turned onto Madison Avenue at nine-fifteen, the excitement burning all night flamed into hysteria. A
New York Sun reporter marveled at the chaos as swarms of people rushed Roosevelt's car, "yelling their immortal souls out. They went through a battery of photographers, tried to sweep the cops off their feet, tangled, jammed and shoved into the throng."
Roosevelt, a little stiff in his black suit, stepped out of the car, raised his hat to the crowd, and walked through a narrow, bucking pathway that the policemen had opened through the suffocating press of bodies. As Roosevelt passed by, his admirers "had their brief and delirious howls, their cries of greeting," one reporter wrote. When he opened a door that led directly onto the speaker's platform, the arena seemed to expand with his very presence, and the people outside "had to step back and watch the walls of the big building ripple under the vocal pressure from within, like the accordion-pleated skirt of a dancer."
Inside the auditorium, Edith Roosevelt, every inch the aristocrat with her softly cleft chin and long, elegant neck, was seated in a box above the fray when a mighty roar rose up from the audience, heralding her husband's entrance. Four colossal American flags greeted Roosevelt, waving grandly from the girdered ceiling, and an entire, massive bull moose stood mounted on a pedestal and bathed in a white spotlight, its head raised high, its ears erect, as if about to charge.
Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech--just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin--he had been shot in the chest by a thirty-six-year-old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt's run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt's heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist's love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant's bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!"
Now, in Madison Square Garden as the boisterous cheering went on for forty-one minutes, Roosevelt still had one of Schrank's bullets in his chest. At 10:03 p.m., pounding on the flag-draped desk in front of him and nervously snapping his jaws, he finally convinced the crowd that he was in earnest, and the hall slowly quieted. Unaided by a loudspeaker, an invention that would revolutionize public speaking the following year, he began his speech. "Friends . . ." At the sound of his voice, the crowd erupted into a thunderous cheer that continued for two more minutes. When it tapered off, he began again. "My friends," he said, "perhaps once in a generation . . ." Suddenly, from seats close to the platform, a clamor arose as policemen tried to push back several people who had forced their way into the hall. Bending forward, Roosevelt bellowed, "Keep those people quiet, please! Officers, be quiet!"
Then, in a voice that filled the auditorium, Theodore Roosevelt launched into the last great campaign speech of his political career: "Friends, perhaps once in a generation, perhaps not so often, there comes a chance for the people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights." He still had the old percussive rhythm, exploding his "p"s and "b"s with vigor, but his tone had lost the violence and his words the bitterness of the past. He did not attack his opponents--the coolly academic Wilson or the genial Taft. Instead, he talked in broad terms about character, moral strength, compassion, and responsibility. "We do not set greed against greed or hatred against hatred," he thundered. "Our creed is one that bids us to be just to all, to feel sympathy for all, and to strive for an understanding of the needs of all. Our purpose is to smite down wrong."
To the people in the hall, and to millions of Americans, Roosevelt was a hero, a leader, an icon. But even as he stood on the stage at Madison Square Garden, he knew that in six days he would lose not only the election but also this bright, unblinking spotlight. He would be reviled by many and then ignored by all, and that would be the worst death he could imagine.
"I know the American people," he had said prophetically in 1910, upon returning to a hero's welcome after an epic journey to Africa. "They ...