High on my list of historical heroes is Theodore Roosevelt, among the most remarkable of America’s presidents. The youngest President ever (yes, younger than Clinton and Kennedy), TR was one of those passionate omnivorous renaissance men you just don’t seem to see any more – gifted naturalist, writer, explorer, horseman, politician, soldier, both war-lover and peacemaker. His terms from 1901-1909 helped usher in the “modern presidency,” and like Lincoln or Jefferson, he contains a bottomless appeal for historical buffs.
Here’s a man who would write 35 books and also wrestle with lions in Africa, a man who was a successful politician and gave it all up to become a ranch hand in South Dakota for a time. While his hefty machismo is sometimes a little extreme for my modern sensitive man beliefs, it’s a product of the times. What appeals to me about Roosevelt is his renaissance man qualities, his belief in the “strenuous life” and his polychromatic knowledge. Many episodes from his life could make a book all on their own.
Now, in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, author Candice Millard examines just one fascinating year in Roosevelt’s life. After a painful loss running as an independent for a third presidential term in 1912, TR needed something dynamic to keep his mind occupied. Instead of leaning back and relaxing, he decided to take on an ambitious South American tour, and throw some pioneering exploration in along the way. The destination? “The River of Doubt,” a 600-mile long waterway in the heart of the Amazon only recently discovered, completely uncharted.
At this time — 1913 — much of the Amazon was utterly mysterious, with only a few outposts. Entire tribes of Indians remained to be discovered. The river turned out to be full of rapids, waterfalls and obstacles for the small party of Roosevelt, his son Kermit, a few helpers and a crew of camaradas, Brazilian laborers.
River of Doubt is an excellent, detailed look at this time in TR’s life, and remarkable adventure. Seriously – can you even imagine George W. Bush or Bill Clinton heading down an unknown, bug-infested river swarming with cannibalistic indians for two months? And getting malaria? In the modern world it’s impossible to picture a President heading off into the wilderness for months at a time.
At one point, Millard writes of a rubber tapper in the remote jungle who comes across the starving expedition, and of his “…awe when he learned that the ragged and stricken man he saw lying in the roughest sort of dugout canoe had once been the president of the United States.”
Roosevelt didn’t care what people thought. “…If it is necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I am quite ready to do so,” he wrote a friend. TR was a real-life “Indiana Jones” in this trek, with the help of many companions, whom Millard also ably profiles. (The Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon is particularly vividly drawn, a stoic, proud man who was TR’s opposite in many ways, yet who worked with him to blaze the path on the river.) The explorers lost multiple canoes on rapids, and endured endless cross-country portaging of their gear, near-starvation and bouts with disease. There’s even a murder to keep things lively.
Millard tells her story with tremendous detail (she even interviewed members of the tribes the party contacted 90 years ago), only occasionally getting a bit too detailed about things like South American botany and ecology. She avoids giving us just another TR biography, setting the stage for Roosevelt’s journey and spending most of the book retelling the harrowing trip in fine detail.
The journey very nearly killed Roosevelt, who contemplated suicide at one point, wracked with disease and not wanting to burden the rest of the party. But he persevered, as he always did. It was Roosevelt’s last, great adventure – and as Millard reveals, the malaria and infections he incurred probably helped lead to his early death at age 60 just five years later. The “River of Doubt” was renamed “Rio Roosevelt.”
Looking at the smaller-than-life characters we seem to get for President these days, River of Doubt serves as a reminder of a time when the man was larger than the office he held. It’s an excellent addition to the field of Roosevelt biography.