First things first: River of Doubt is absolutely riveting! But for me to tell you that, I had to be reminded to do so by sitting through two-plus soporific hours in a chilly theater last night watching (the usually enchanting) John Lithgow stumble and scream through a couple of decades of journalist Joseph Alsop’s life – Alsop’s grandmother, Corinne Roosevelt, was Teddy Roosevelt’s younger sister and appears sporadically throughout River. Then I opened an email this morning from a Smithsonian APA Program colleague about only reading fiction, so just to be contrary, here I am …
Teddy Roosevelt’s third bid for the presidency in 1912 was a spectacular failure. Having survived a sickly childhood by taking on impossible adventures out of sheer will, Roosevelt refused to quietly retire, and instead headed to South America to undertake what would be the greatest physical challenge of his life: to chart the unknown waters of what was then known as the Rio da Dúvida, or the River of Doubt, which winds through Brazil and eventually flows into the Amazon.
Former National Geographic magazine editor/writer Candice Millard tracks the grueling journey through journals, letters, and articles not only of the former President, but also of his tenacious co-participants, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit, Brazil’s most famous explorer and expedition co-commander Colonel Cândido Rondon, and legendary American naturalist and explorer George Cherrie. Before the expedition actually reaches the River (possible spoiler alert here), Roosevelt will have had to separate from the incompetent outfitter Anthony Fiala and the arrogant and racist Father John Augustine Zahm.
As much as the expedition’s human participants are the book’s heroes (and villains both), Millard’s most excellent adventures are enhanced by ever-so-graphic descriptions (or nightmares, if you will) of the flora and fauna throughout the uncharted territory (no spoilers here, ahem … except to mention that piranhas ain’t got nothin’ on candiru!).
With Paul Michael narrating, I found myself running the river trails with more than the usual alertness – hey, I’m in DC, I never know what sort of slimy surprise I might run into! Millard’s expert storytelling proves absolutely addictive – surely, the late President is shouting ‘bully!!’ for her debut effort from wherever his latest adventure might be.