The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Available from amazon.com in paperback for $10.20
Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars, mostly because I don’t enjoy nonfiction non-memoir as much.
My sister-in-law came to help paint our house a couple of weekends ago and left this book with me at the same time. Normally I don’t care for nonfiction (except in the case of memoir, and even then, not always), but I’ve realized by now that s-i-l has pretty good taste in books, so when she asked if I liked nonfiction, I lied a little bit and said “Sure,” because I wanted to see what would happen next. 🙂 I’m glad I lied.
The River of Doubt picks up in Roosevelt’s life just as he’s about to lose the election to Woodrow Wilson. Chafing without a challenge before him, Roosevelt jumps at the chance to participate in an essentially spur-of-the-moment river expedition up a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon (well, the Amazon by way of another river. Anyway.). This book contains romance, murder, near-starvation, suicidal ideation, and lots of bugs. It also contains a person named Kermit, one of Roosevelt’s sons, and I think that makes it a good book on its own. I found this book so enthralling that I really did flip to the end to see whether or not Kermit lived. Things seemed so dire that I just couldn’t take the suspense (I did the same in Harry Potter book 7. Yes, that sort of suspense.).
Millard has great research to back up her historical claims, but her book isn’t merely a report or compilation of research. She skillfully weaves the highlights of Roosevelt’s life (well, the relevant ones anyway) into her larger narrative of his trip downriver. In doing so, she introduces her readers into the characters of several of Roosevelt’s companions while also developing an overall portrait of the former President himself. In spite of his short physical stature, Millard presents him as the truly larger-than-life figure he presented himself to be. Millard’s Roosevelt doesn’t fear death, pain, or discomfort, but merely uselessness and dependency, the spectre of which caused him to flee to the Amazon to begin with, and which causes him to contemplate suicide while on his journey. Even if Theodore Roosevelt hadn’t been a President, I would’ve found this work a worthwhile read just because he’s that fascinating a person. I don’t believe I’d like to go to lunch or anything with him (he’d monopolize the conversation, I think, and I would find him intimidating), but it sure would be nice to go to a party he was also attending, just for the people-watching opportunity.
In spite of how exciting this book was (and it really was), I gave it a medium rating because it was still nonfiction and had all those problems attendant to nonfiction. Authors telling the absolute truth from their perspective feel compelled to do an awful lot of explaining and to provide historical context. An author telling a fictional story that takes place in the Gilded Age, for example, feels no such compulsion. In writing class terms, we call that telling, not showing, and showing is better than telling. So while I recognize Millard’s thoroughness as a good scholarly habit, it does drag down the narrative a bit (though Millard avoids that sort of thing better than most nonfiction authors). Also, because it was nonfiction, I could absolutely rule out the appearance of pteradactyls or aliens, which were really the only things that could’ve made it more exciting. Or possibly sexy lady explorers, but that would be a different sort of story. Also, since it’s history and since I paid attention in class, I knew Roosevelt wouldn’t die, which wasn’t exactly a disappointment, but did lessen some of the suspense.
All in all, a great read. Go check it out.