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.