Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Book Review: "The River of Doubt"

Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey is one of those that I've been watching for ever since it came out (2005). I knew sooner or later that I'd stumble across a copy, and finally did. [I'm not sure why it always works out this way, but it seems that whenever I wait for a book to come to me instead of buying it right off as soon as I hear about it, I tend to like it more (this is probably a clue that I should buy fewer books, isn't it?).]

One of the reasons I never reached out and bought this book was all the hype it got when it was released. Books that get that much attention almost always disappoint me. But, thankfully, this one did no such thing. In fact, it deserved every word of praise it received (and I'm about to give it a few more). I simply couldn't put it down. Millard has managed to write one of the best popular histories in print today, and I would not hesitate to rank it among the best ever written.

Roosevelt's trip down the Rio Duvida (now the Rio Roosevelt) in 1914 is recounted here in meticulous and mind-boggling detail, with the tone of a novel and the suspense of a thriller. I've read many biographies of TR and of this trip and its impact on the former president's life, but Millard brings the episode alive to such a striking degree that I found it impossible to keep my breath from catching in my throat at certain points. Millard has captured TR and his companions brilliantly, but beyond that she also manages to make the river itself, the surrounding ecosystem and the (usually) invisible but nearby native peoples into integral parts of the narrative.

Following Roosevelt and his party through the jungle is a remarkably painful experience - between the diminishing rations, severe health problems, poor planning, nasty weather and all manner of insects and other annoyances, I found myself cringing every time the group ran into another set of rapids or was forced to stop and build another dugout. I just wanted them to make it through ... and then when they suddenly reached their destination, I thought it had all happened too soon.

This book is almost sure to be one of my top books of the year, but of course I do have the occasional quibble. More detailed maps would have been very useful, as would in-text indications of the endnotes (which are excellent, but aren't marked). But these are very minor criticisms - it's a great book, and one I highly recommend.