Wednesday, February 07, 2007

River of Experience

The River of Doubt, By Candice Millard, Read by Paul Michael, Books on Tape, 2005

There is no tougher second act than following up being President of the United States. George Washington retired to his farm, John Quincy Adams went on to a lengthy career in the House of Representatives, and most of our modern ex-Oval Office types seem to spend a lot of time playing golf. While the charitable works of Carter and Clinton are admirable in their own right, there is something less pulse pounding in this generous retirement.

The first words of Candice Millard’s thrilling history of Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidency The River of Doubt hooks you right away.“ I don’t believe he can live through the night.” And who are we speaking of? No less than President Roosevelt himself. Wracked with fever from an infected leg wound, the ex-President chanted in delirium the opening lines of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.”

No matter what you may think of Roosevelt or his politics (and Indian tribes don’t rank him too favorably), it is impossible not to admire his gusto. Shot preceding a speech he intended to deliver in Milwaukee, the bullet partly deflected by his stiff coat, his fifty page speech, and his steel glasses case, yet nevertheless lodged five inches inside his chest, Roosevelt delivered his speech, his jacket unbuttoned and shirt bloody. He carried that bullet in his body until he died.

The shot took place during his unprecedented run for a third term as President, a run not in his former party as a Republican, but as a Progressive “Bull Moose.” Splitting the Republican vote and sending his hand-picked successor, incumbent William Howard Taft to a historical third place finish, as well as handing the White House to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, Roosevelt was reviled by many of his former friends and backers for handing the Presidency to the opposition for the first time in sixteen years.

While he knew the chance of his winning was a longshot, Roosevelt took the loss pretty hard. His wife and the rest of his family knew what that meant. A long, punishing physical test designed to shake him out of the doldrums. Like we’ve read in so many other stories, Roosevelt’s celebration of physical exertion springs from a sickly childhood. An asthmatic bedridden youth, he pushed and pushed himself to grow out of this, and it was the habit of his life to physically force himself to engage life.

At the time of Roosevelt’s defeat, South America was the least explored continent in the world; at least one unmapped interior plot was larger than Germany. What more could an adventurous, thrill-seeking amateur naturalist ask for in a vacation? And why shouldn’t he go? His expedition to Africa provided the best samples of wildlife for the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. The more Roosevelt thought about it, the better the opportunity seemed. Not only that, it was a good chance to visit his son Kermit, living at the time in Brazil, as well as to engage in some south of the border diplomacy for the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The plans made at the beginning were not much to cause worry. Nothing strenuous, down a well-mapped river, in the hands of experienced guides. After Roosevelt sneers at visitors who never do anything but stick to the approved routes as no better than their own valises, it is suggested that they try a non-mapped river. El Rio da Dúvida, The River of Doubt, is their choice, a hazily understood tributary to the Amazon. Millard glides through the scenes in which a short jaunt turns into a dangerous voyage into the unknown with a breeziness that mirrors how easily plans can take on a life of their own.

The venture starts off with bad foreshadowing. Anthony Fiala, a sporting goods supply store clerk with a disastrously bad record from his North Pole expedition that almost ended in tragedy, is hired without anyone being aware (at first) of how badly he managed that trek. As an idea of his problematic mindset, his supply list in regards to food is a bizarreity that includes such delicacies as lemon zest, olive oil, and Rhine wine.

Roosevelt is also joined by his lingually polymathic son Kermit who learned Swahili in Africa, German, Ancient Greek, French, Portuguese, among other languages. He is likewise joined by Brazil’s greatest explorer Candido Mariano de Silva Rondon, a positivist quarter-Indian who struggled in early life and spent his professional life in one hardship exploration after another. Prior to this expedition that the two men undergo, Condon’s party discovered the source of the Rio da Dúvida, though they had to give up mapping it much further than that due to lack of supplies.

Certain little details Millard provides can often drive home to you just what the times were like at the turn of the century. Living down in Brazil working with a railroad company, Kermit repeatedly suffered from malaria he’d contracted as a child. And he’d contracted it as a child when living in Washington, D.C.

One setback after another besets the men even before they begin the descent of the river. At the very outset, they already have to cut rations to half normal daily allowance. Having made it to their starting point, the headwaters of the river, after much struggle and suffering, having had such bad packing and planning by Fiana, the expedition begins officially under the idea of a race against death by starvation. Also, as they are descending the unknown river path as opposed to ascending it, they are at the mercy of the currents. If you ascend a river and decide to go back, you merely turn your boat around and let the current take you back to your base camp. Descending allows the river to take you where it wants to go. You have to hope you will get to someplace safe.

Worse still, after such a long trip to the origin of the river, the Roosevelt group arrive with no boats, none at all. Bartering with a local tribe reviled by other tribes in the area for their exceedingly primitive way of life (so much so they lack even a hammock), Condon purchases some boats that are little more than hollowed out logs, virtually impossible to steer or guide in any way. Throughout the course of their journey, they will haul, wreck, barter away, and generally do everything possible with these boats.

Further, as they move down the river, there are things to worry about such as caimans (Brazilian alligators), piranhas, and the dreaded candiru (the small fish that swims up urine streams, lodges in a urethra, and feeds on blood — it is fatal for the fish and can be fatal for the hosts; removal often involves removal of the penis).

If you wanted to write a film of a journey down a jungle river (no, not that one), this tale would be almost the perfect type. Narrow escapes, dangerous tribes and animals, then when they think they’ve gotten past some serious struggles, the placid river suddenly goes to rapids.

After the rapids shatter three of the canoes and they lose several crates of rations, the tribe that surrounds them along their travels is a cannibal tribe (and which chunky ex-President do you think would make the most bully meal?). The bleaker the story gets, the more challenges and tragedies are thrown in their way. After Roosevelt is felled by an infected leg injury and is forced to be carried, the long idle carrier/boatman Julio murders another one and hides out in the forest. Who knows who else may be a target. In a superhuman show, Roosevelt lunges from his bed, grabs a rifle, and sets out to hunt down the killer. You can’t but help admiring the man.

Not only is The River of Doubt a gripping adventure story, it is, at times, a history of the Amazon from prehistory up to the day of the expedition, an ecological examination of rain forest botany, biology, and evolution, and an anthropological survey of surrounding tribes. Millard draws heavily on varying accounts of the expedition, giving clear credence more to Roosevelt’s account than anyone else’s, but she isn’t shy about pointing out the man’s blind spots and pigheadedness. Despite all that, her own delight at the man is infectious. While the expedition may have seemed like a nightmare neverending, the book itself moves at times almost too fast. You’re rather saddened to be leaving the company of man so in love with life.

If there are any flaws in the book it’s the frequent invocation of the name of The River of Doubt for dramatic effect. While the narrator Paul Michael is in part to blame for his emphasis on this, it’s clear that the repetition of the title for evocative purposes is too heavily done in the text itself. I found myself murmuring, Bum bum BUUUUMMM every time it was said. Other than that, Michael’s reading is truly enjoyable and keeps the book moving along with excellent pacing.

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