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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

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At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth.

The River of Doubt—it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron.

After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever.

Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. The River of Doubt brings alive these extraordinary events in a powerful nonfiction narrative thriller that happens to feature one of the most famous Americans who ever lived.
From the soaring beauty of the Amazon rain forest to the darkest night of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, here is Candice Millard’s dazzling debut.

416 pages, Paperback

First published October 18, 2005

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About the author

Candice Millard

7 books2,270 followers
Candice Millard is a former writer and editor for National Geographic magazine. Her first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, was a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and Kansas City Star. The River of Doubt was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Book Sense Pick, was a finalist for the Quill Awards, and won the William Rockhill Nelson Award. It has been printed in Portuguese, Mandarin, and Korean, as well as a British edition.

Millard's second book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President, rose to number five on The New York Times bestseller list and has been named a best book of the year by The New York Times, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The Kansas City Star, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Destiny of the Republic won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction, the One Book—One Lincoln Award, the Ohioana Award and the Kansas Notable Book Award.

Millard's work has also appeared in Time Magazine, Washington Post Book World, and the New York Times Book Review. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and three children.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
March 19, 2019
”In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 photo RooseveltWriting_zps5b21b493.jpg
Roosevelt wrote articles for Scribners while he was on this trip. Notice that he had to cover up his hands and face to keep the constant barrage of biting insects at bay.

As Theodore Roosevelt lay on his cot in the Amazonian jungle burning up with fever, yellow pus leaking from his leg, and his mind wandering aimlessly through the corridors of his memories he would recite over and over the opening stanza of Kubla Khan. I can only imagine how terrifying that was to his traveling companions, especially his son Kermit, to see the Bull Moose nearly at the end of his tether. So how did Teddy end up in such circumstances?

Well it all starts with the Republican primaries for the 1912 Presidential election. Roosevelt had finished up William McKinley’s term after McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in 1901. Roosevelt had then won the presidency as the top man at the ticket in 1904. In 1908 he graciously decided to step down and not run for another term as president. He supported his good friend William Howard Taft for the presidency. Taft won. Teddy had a falling out with Taft probably having more to do with personality conflicts than political differences. He went to the party and asked them to replace Taft with himself for the 1912 election. They refused, but they assured him he would be their candidate in 1916.

Teddy is not one to wait.

 photo RooseveltSpeech_zpsfe926151.jpg

He formed the Bull Moose Party and decided he was going to run against everyone. His own party, the Democrats, and anyone else who wanted to jump in the race. While campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin he was shot by a saloonkeeper named John Schrank.
 photo John_Schrank_zps8b05fd20.jpg
John Schrank the man who shot Roosevelt.

Roosevelt decided that since he wasn’t coughing up blood that instead of going to hospital he would deliver his campaign speech in his blood soaked shirt.

 photo RooseveltX-Ray_zps57aae7c2.jpg
Roosevelt x-ray showing the bullet in his chest.

If you just heard a CLANK that was Roosevelt’s brass balls.

The 1912 election turned out to be an unusual one with four candidates splitting up the vote.

Woodrow Wilson Democrat 6,296,284 votes 41.8% of the vote.
Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 4,122,721 votes 27.4% of the vote
William Howard Taft Republican 3,486,242 votes 23.2% of the votes
Eugene V. Debs Socialist 901,551 votes 6% of the votes

Roosevelt frankly couldn’t believe he lost. Whenever anything goes wrong he has to figure out a way to hit the reset button to keep from going into funk, and one of the best ways for him to do so is to do something dangerous like take a trip down to South America and see if the Amazon could kill him or make him whole again. He was 55 years old in 1913.


 photo Kermit_Roosevelt_Amazon_Expedition_1913_zpsaa90f76f.jpg
Kermit Roosevelt on the Amazon

His son Kermit had just become engaged to a young socialite, so he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of a long excursion into the jungle, but he could not let his father go without him. Kermit was already suffering from malaria when the trip began and fought it all the way down the river. Initially they were supposed to take a relatively easy trip down a known byway, but when Colonel Rondon came to Roosevelt and presented an alternative idea, surveying an unknown river, can’t you see the brimming excitement in those myopic eyes and the big smile with all those tombstone teeth?

CLANK! CLANK!! He hopped up and down thus the double clank.

Everything went wrong. They brought too much stuff. They brought the wrong stuff. They hired the wrong people. On top of all that: ”Compared with the creatures of the Amazon, including the Indians whose territory they were invading, they were all--from the lowliest camarada to the former president of the United States--clumsy, conspicuous prey.”

 photo RooseveltandRondon_zps1dc6d4af.jpg
They named the river after Roosevelt. He insisted that The River of Doubt was a much better name, but showing diplomacy graciously accepted the honor. With him is Captain Rondon. What I’m struck by in this picture is how thin Roosevelt looks.

The River of Doubt turns out to be a nemesis capable of swallowing them all without leaving a single trace. It is beautiful though, and certainly majestic.

”If Roosevelt and his men could have soared over the rain forest like the hawks that wheeled above them, the River of Doubt would have looked like a black piece of ribbon candy nestled in an endless expanse of green. Here, at the start of its tortuous journey northward, the river was so tightly coiled that at times it doubled back on itself, and in every direction the jungle stretched--dense, impenetrable, and untouched--to the horizon.”

Hidden beneath the canopy and beneath the roiling waters of the river are hazards that are just waiting, patiently, for someone or something to make a mistake.

”Of the approximately twenty piranha species, most prefer to attack something their own size or smaller, and they are happy to scavenge, especially during the rainy season, when there is more to choose from. However, their muscular jaws and sawlike teeth, which look as if they have been filed to tiny spear points, can make quick work of a living creature of any size and strength, from a waterbird to a monkey, to even an ox. During telegraph line expeditions, Rondon and his soldiers regularly offered up their weakest ox to a school of piranha so that the rest of their herd could safely cross the river."

 photo Piranha_zps91ced1d3.jpg
Anybody for a quick swim?

Rondon lost a good friend who was attacked by piranhas. When they found him all that was left on his skeleton was the feet in his boots.

There are Indian tribesmen of course, not friendly. These blundering explorers stirring up the jungle probably were perceived more as an irritation than a real threat, but still they were “other” which could also mean that they were on the menu.
”The most important rule of cannibalism within the tribe was that one Cinta Larga could not eat another. The tribe drew a clear distinction between its own members and the rest of mankind, which they considered to be ‘other’--and, thus, edible.”

 photo CintaLargo_zps7ace80c2.jpg
Try not to look sooo hungry when you are looking at me.

The survey expedition soon becomes low on food. The river demands carbs as they have to negotiate brutal rocky rapids that require their canoes and their supplies be hand lowered down to a calmer section of the river. When they needed more food for energy is when they had the least to eat. Teddy cuts his leg trying to help with the canoes and it happens to be the leg that was crushed in a traffic accident more than a decade before. I would assume that blood flow was not the best through that leg which makes it harder for the body to fight infection. On top of the infection that quickly starts oozing from his leg is the assassin’s bullet still in his chest. It is not completely healed and continues to pull down his immune system. He is perfectly positioned to die.

He offered to pull the trigger, Hemingway style.


He wouldn’t be carried. He was going to walk out of that jungle.


”Roosevelt realized that if he wanted to save Kermit’s life he would have to allow his son to save him. ‘It came to me, and I saw that if I did end it, that would only make it more sure that Kermit would not get out. For I know he would not abandon me, but would insist on bringing my body out, too. That, of course, would have been impossible. I knew his determination. So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself.’”

 photo CANDICEMILLARD_zps04d88d64.jpg
Could you toss your hair Candice? Beautiful. Now look over here. Lovely.

Candace Millard is not only lovely, but also a wonderful writer. She placed me there in the jungle with Teddy and his camaradas. I didn’t trail my hands in the water and in generally just kept all my digits as close to my body as possible. I could feel the desperation as one thing after another continued to go wrong, stacking the deck against them. It was an adventure too arduous for a 55 year old man, but Teddy needed a victory. A victory that would sooth the pain of his defeat in 1912. He needed something larger than life that would put the sparkle back in his eye when he came home and told everyone just how close to death he came. The Amazon never did let go of him; in fact, when he died in 1919 it was from complications associated with his trip down The River of Doubt. I also highly recommend Millard’s book on President Garfield. Destiny of the Republic

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
April 25, 2019
“The ordinary traveler, who never goes off the beaten route and who on this beaten route is carried by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package…He does nothing; others do all the work, show all the foresight, take all the risk – and are entitled to all the credit…”
- Theodore Roosevelt

This is the trip that Teddy Roosevelt deserved.

Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt is about TR getting exactly what he wished for – in the most Confucian sense.

Theodore Roosevelt is a person that I totally admire and respect and also kind of hate. He makes me feel the most intense kind of inadequacy that a modern person can experience. Teddy chased outlaws and roped cattle and killed a Spaniard and won a Nobel Peace Prize and once delivered a speech with a fresh bullet in his body. He was an exceptional man.

The irritating thing, though, is that he truly believed that everyone who was less exceptional than him was lacking in some vital moral fiber. His smug assurance that all a person had to do was say “bully!” and press on to victory gets a little grating.

It also – in my opinion – makes him less interesting than a lot of other historical figures. Teddy lacks nuance, subtlety, and vulnerability. He swaggers across the pages of history.

Except in The River of Doubt.

In the The River of Doubt he poops all over himself.

More than anything else, Millard’s account of Teddy’s misbegotten vacation brings a titanic figure down to human dimensions. This is not the puffed-chest Roosevelt who, at the Sorbonne, elegantly sneered at “the critic” who does not enter the arena, who is a “cold and timid soul” who knows not victory nor defeat. Instead, this is a Roosevelt starving and wracked with fever and dysentery, lying in a sweltering jungle, contemplating suicide.

The River of Doubt recounts Roosevelt’s 1913-14 expedition down an unexplored South American river: the titular River of Doubt. The thousand-mile river, preceded by a months-long overland journey, was fraught with dangers: Indians, snakes, rapids, piranhas, insects, disease and starvation. All this was compounded by poor planning, dubious food selection, faulty assumptions (that, for one, the expedition would be able to supplement its rations by hunting), and unwieldy dugout canoes.

The environment these men entered was almost impossibly lethal. Even a scrape on the leg could lead to a life-threatening infection. The heat, the rains, the mud; the exhausting portages; the lingering malaria; the gross bugs; the incessant mosquitoes. Every step in the journey was like every scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Teddy’s expedition was borne out of his disappointing electoral defeat in 1912, when he’d run as a third-party candidate against William Howard Taft (his former mentee) and Woodrow Wilson. As Millard points out, Roosevelt’s prescription for crushing personal setbacks was vigorous physical activity. (As I intimated above, he was not the kind of man who could simply talk about his feelings).

Three months after handing the keys of the White House over to Wilson, Roosevelt was invited to give a series of lectures in Argentina. He used this trip as an opportunity to indulge his passion for naturalism. With the help of the American Museum of Natural History, Teddy put together a modest trip. This was to be a chance to put some bugs in a jar, blast away at unsuspecting wildlife with a shotgun, and sit beneath the stars. However, once Roosevelt arrived, his plans changed. Instead of poking around the Amazon, Teddy and his expedition would attempt to be the first white people to descend the unmapped River of Doubt.

Traveling with Roosevelt was his son, Kermit, a lovesick young man of exceptional energy and endurance; Father Zahm, a racist old priest who wanted the porters to carry him along the trail; George Cherrie, an explorer and naturalist; and Colonel Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Brazil’s most famous explorer, a man so devoted to peace between Brazilians and Indians that he refused to let his men defend themselves if attacked.

Of these characters, we learn the most about Kermit. This is due to his prolific writing, especially his lovesick letters to his fiancé, Belle. Unlike his father, Kermit wasn’t stingy about expressing his feelings in the most maudlin manner possible. Kermit had had a challenging childhood. Teddy Roosevelt was something of a Tiger Mother, except instead of forcing his son to play the piano, he made Kermit endure various wilderness challenges without complaint. Millard does a fine job shading Kermit, and showing his many sides: the Kermit who wrote silly love notes; the Kermit who carefully watched over his father; and the darker Kermit who caused a man’s drowning without batting an eye.

We learn a bit less of Roosevelt himself, whose own personal writings were more about the landscape than his interior monologue. Roosevelt’s arc is mostly seen secondhand, by the other men in the expedition. In the spirit of transparency, I will acknowledge feeling a bit of satisfaction at seeing the blustering Roosevelt brought to his knees and forced to accept that some of life’s challenges require more than a can-do attitude.

Colonel Rondon, the co-leader of the expedition, shares the stage with Roosevelt for most of the trip. He is a colorful character in his own right (and my favorite part of The River of Doubt): iron-willed, supremely disciplined, thoughtful and driven. Teddy Roosevelt is a pretty interesting guy, and it means something to say that Rondon does not wilt in Roosevelt’s shadow.

The real character, though, (and let me just slip into my cliché pants) is South America’s fatal environment. In Millard’s telling, the whole of the jungle is a living creature, each thing – each plant, tree, insect, and blade of grass – engaged in an epic battle for survival. Millard spends a lot of time describing the symbiotic relationships that web the South American jungle. She also devotes ample time to all the terrifying beasts that awaited the expedition. Wild boar. Jaguar. Coral snake. And a tiny transparent catfish called the candiru.

When it comes to parasitizing people, a very rare occurrence, the candiru’s modus operandi is to enter through an orifice – from a vagina to an anus…The potential danger for the men on the River of Doubt came not just when they swam in the river but even when they urinated in its shallow waters. Instances of candirus parasitizing people are rare, but in the one case in which a doctor fully documented his removal of a candiru from a young man, the victim’s explanation of how the fish had entered his urethra was nearly as shocking as the fact that it was there at all…In this case… the victim reported that, just before the attack, he had been standing in a river urinating, but the water had reached only his upper thighs, and his penis had not even touched the river, much less been submerged in it. The candiru, he claimed, had abruptly leapt out of the water, shimmied up his urine stream, and disappeared into his urethra.


Millard is a brisk, engaging writer who has carved herself a nice niche with moderately-sized narrative histories about moderately-unknown events. She has a journalist’s ability to explain and describe with utmost clarity, and to highlight interesting factoids. Her greatest achievement is melding the main story of the expedition with the many secondary and tertiary topics (such as ferocious fish, lurking cannibals, Brazilian history, and of course, candiru slipping into bodily orifices). For the most part, she manages to insert these illuminating, fascinating, sometimes gross discussions into the main narrative, without slowing things down, or making you feel like you’re reading filler.

Obviously you know, or should know, that Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t die alongside the River of Doubt. Yet Millard maintains a thriller’s tension, so that you are flipping pages as fast as you can read. The surprise isn’t who lives or dies, but how these men were able to survive at all.

Millard mostly avoids the temptation to paint Roosevelt’s expedition as some exalted event. Yes, he mapped an unmapped river, and did so at great personal risk; however, in the scope of Roosevelt’s life – not to mention the sweep of history – this is a footnote. (Of course, it say a lot about Teddy that this journey is only one of the top ten things he did). Just a few years later, following the death of his son Quentin in World War I, and with his health broken from the River of Doubt, Roosevelt died in bed.

I don’t know if Roosevelt drew any lessons from his time on the river. In spirit, he was the same man after that he was before. When World War I broke out, he even pestered Woodrow Wilson to give him a combat command. Still, the journey down the River of Doubt – a metaphor so obvious is doesn’t need explanation – must have given him some inkling that life was a precarious balance, and he could not strut along it forever. But who can really say?

Even if Teddy didn't learn anything, I sure did. I learned about survival, endurance, and humanity. And I learned one big fat lesson about not canoeing down an unmapped South American river infested with piranhas and transparent catfish that can end up in your urethra.
Profile Image for Beata.
729 reviews1,113 followers
September 5, 2021
Terrific account of a journey that even today may be undertaken by the most intrepid of us. Ms Millard's story telling is masterful, concentrating on the journey and including so much information that I often felt I had to google the places, people and animals described, which enriched the reading experience. Definitely one of the top reads of the year for me.
Thank you, OverDrive!
Profile Image for Paula K .
419 reviews424 followers
February 5, 2017
What a wonderful, adventurous journey Candice Millard takes us on with Teddy Roosevelt's amazing and disastrous expedition down an uncharted Amazonian river called the River of Doubt. Troubled by his defeat in 1912's election, the 55 year-old Teddy needed a victory, and what better way but a new expedition this time taking him through the rain forest.

Joined by his son, Kermit, Teddy sets out to explore a charted Brazilian river, but gets talked into trying the River of Doubt by his co-lead in the expedition. Disorganized and poorly planned from the start, the team runs into piranha, Amazon Indians, treacherous white water rapids, dense jungle, insects, infection and disease, and starvation. Amazing that any of them came out alive.

Highly recommend this book and Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Kiekiat.
69 reviews127 followers
December 30, 2019
Candice Millard is one of those writers I like so much that I'll read anything she puts out, though I own but have yet to read her tale of Churchill's adventures during the Boer War. I loved her book about President Garfield and the bungled job American physicians did that probably hastened Garfield's death after he was shot by Charles Guiteau. I love Millard because she has a knack for giving us little nuggets of knowledge about people and events that one would be unlikely to read in a conventional history book. Garfield, for example, was able even at age 50 to perform a standing flip, and was the first President to address a group of citizens in a foreign language--speaking German to a German-American audience in what apparently was an extemporaneous effort.

She continues her series of interesting books involving famous people with this tale of Theodore Roosevelt's ill-starred expedition down an Amazon River tributary in 'The River of Doubt.' As reviewer Max has noted, Roosevelt would have made for an interesting psychological study. He is not alone in this belief. H.L. Mencken says of him:

"There is also room for a study by some competent psychologist--if one exists--upon the character of Roosevelt. He was, by long odds, the most interesting man who ever infested the White House, not excepting Jefferson and Jackson. Life fascinated him, and he knew how to make his own doings fascinating to others. He was full of odd impulses, fantastic ideas, brilliant phrases. He was highly intelligent, and, for a politician, very widely read....Unfortunately, Roosevelt's extraordinary mentality was not supported by character of equivalent voltage. He was, on occasion, a very slippery fellow, and he knew how to sacrifice principle to expediency. His courage, which he loved to display melodramatically, was largely bluster: he could retreat most dexterously when ballot-boxes began to explode. On many of the capital questions which engaged the country in his time he seems to have had no settled convictions: he was, for example, both for a high tariff and against it. He belabored the trusts publicly, but granted them favors behind the door. He was a Progressive for votes only, and had little respect for most of his followers."

I suspect that even the most perspicacious of psychologists could have done nothing with Roosevelt. T.R., as he was called, was not the sort of person who spent his time lying down, especially on a psychologist's couch. He was by all accounts a loving father, yet after his wife and mother died on the same day he never spoke of his wife ever again. This was to cause problems for his baby daughter Alice, born two days before Roosevelt's wife succumbed. Roosevelt never mentioned his wife's name again, which was Alice, and did not even include her in his autobiography--can someone say the word "denial" here! He also created a new sobriquet for his infant daughter Alice and never addressed her by that name. A man who won't even utter his late wife's name is unlikely to open up to a therapist.

Roosevelt, instead, was a man of action. One of my favorite tales about him is how he corralled a couple of wanted outlaws somewhere out West and marched them at gunpoint for forty miles through heavy snow, all the while reading 'Anna Karenina' as he led the pair to justice.

This journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, then, is much in keeping with Roosevelt's personality and past history, as when he joined the school boxing team at Harvard and became a scrappy brawler, or when he ventured West to frontier America to work as a ranch-hand and again during the "Spanish-American War" when he led his troops, the Rough Riders, up San Juan Hill.

This South American adventure appears to have been undertaken for the money, as T.R. was offered speaking engagements in Buenos Aires that paid $13,000--a sum well over $100,000 in today's dollars. The speaking engagement trip, and visitation to see Roosevelt's son, Kermit, who was working in Brazil, somehow transmogrified into yet another Rooseveltian escapade of derring-do and test of human endurance. Roosevelt was fortunate that the expedition was c0-led by the great Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, a formidable man in his own right who had traveled extensively in the Brazilian rain forests and backwaters.

Theodore Roosevelt was a very smart man. He wrote over thirty books, could recite the entire 'Song of Roland' in Medieval French and was capable of reading several books per day. This is to say that he did not enter into this expedition blindly. He was no doubt aware of the perils that lay ahead.

Here I'll do some amateur psychoanalyzing--forgive me!

It is a dangerous thing to start believing one's own legend. It is dangerous because it causes a person to lose site of the dangers and perils of life and gives them a false sense of invincibility. Believing in one's legend has taken the lives of many, ranging from boxers to skiers to adventurers of every stripe.

Over the years, Roosevelt had built up and promulgated his legend as an invincible man, a character, almost, out of a Walter Scott novel--a man who delivered a long speech after being shot with a .38 caliber bullet by a would-be assassin. The additional problem with concocting an aura of invincibility is that it robs the person of living an authentic life. This is not to say that there is always something pathological about great adventurers and explorers, though perhaps there may be? Perhaps it is the very pathology that is the prime mover in their exploits? I'll leave that up to a real psychologist to ponder. I think, though, that the person risks becoming a caricature of the hero they have set themselves up to be. The feeling of invincibility, common to most youth, can also lead to great hubris, especially in a man of Teddy Roosevelt's accomplishments.

What is clear, as Clint Eastwood said, is that "A man's got to know his limitations." Hubris and a sense of invincibility stifle insight, and though Roosevelt was a brilliant man and crafty politician who knew how to utilize other brilliant men like his Secretary of State Elihu Root, he was not a man
given to deep personal insight. He was also a man given to intransigence and a feeling, similar to Woodrow Wilson, that he was always right. This had caused him in 1912 to run for President as a 3rd party candidate against his old protege William Howard Taft due to his feeling that Taft had not carried out the agenda Roosevelt had crafted for him. Roosevelt's disastrous river journey, where he did end up feverish and very near death, serves as an example of what can happen to a person who refuses to alter his life patterns and lacking the insight to realize that the strenuous life he advocated perhaps needs to be adjusted to less life-threatening adventures as one ages.

A man of insight, fifty-four years old and swollen to 220 pounds (100 kilos) would have thought twice and maybe a third time about undertaking an unnecessary and potentially deadly trip, endangering his own life, his son's life and the lives of many others on the expedition. Roosevelt's hubris along with his inability to find a path that did not involve extreme risks served as his comeuppance and likely shortened his life since he died in ill health at the age of sixty from a stroke.
Thankfully, Candice Millard is around to chronicle his folly in her usual engaging style. I highly recommend 'The River of Doubt' as a work of history and an account of some fascinating individuals undertaking a seemingly senseless journey. I cannot help but be reminded of the movie "Burden of Dreams," which is a documentary of the making of Werner Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo." "Fitzcarraldo is about an opera company's insane attempt to set up an opera in the Amazon jungle. In one scene in "Burden of Dreams," Herzog, dissatisfied with the location for filming, has ventured either 1000 miles or kilometers downriver scouting a better location. Herzog is interviewed by the documentary director Les Blank and asked why in the hell he has come so far and why he is so determined to make this movie. His reply, "If I don't do this, I'll become a man who has lost his dreams." Though I think Herzog may be as warped as Theodore Roosevelt, somehow I can identify with his ferocious striving to achieve his vision far better than I can reconcile Roosevelt's seemingly aimless journey.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book487 followers
June 9, 2017
What an astounding man Theodore Roosevelt was! After reading a review by my amazing GR friend, LeAnne, I decided this was a book I needed to read sooner instead of later.

I knew quite a bit about Mr. Roosevelt, including a bit about this final adventure in the Amazon. All my information came from a PBS special I saw a few years back on Theodore and Eleanor and Franklin. It was definitely enough to peek my interest in this American icon. He was far from anything we would expect to find in the White House these days. He was an adventurer who took his outdoor skills seriously, set standards very difficult to live up to, and held himself to a standard above anything he would have expected of anyone else.

The trip down the Amazon is described in enough detail to make you squirm in your seat and wonder how anyone came out the other side, let alone a man of Roosevelt's age and physical condition. He managed to make an exploration that garnered the admiration of explorers of the caliber of Robert Peary, the first man to reach the North Pole, and to exit the Amazon jungle with the respect and goodwill of all the men who made the trip with him.

In tribute to him, these are the words of Cherrie, a famed naturalist who was with Roosevelt on his trip down the River of Doubt: "I have always thought it strange," Cherrie said quietly, "since I had the opportunity to know him and know him intimately--because I feel that I did know him very intimately--how any man could be brought in close contact with Colonel Roosevelt without loving the man." What a statement that makes about the character of Roosevelt, that he could win the heart of such a man when the both of them must have been at their worst humor and suffering from hunger, illness and unimaginable discomforts.

I couldn't help thinking how much we need a man of his conviction and confidence today. I don't think you would have worried about insincerity, or indecision, or dishonesty, or a president engulfed in fear, when Roosevelt was at the wheel. I'm guessing that even in a state of peril, Roosevelt would have made you feel safe. He was larger than life, because he was not afraid of it.

[final thought: I tried to imagine a modern day president taking an assassin's bullet and standing up with the bullet still in him and making a speech, or any of our current former presidents heading off on such a dangerous adventure without having their security details in tow to clear the paths through the jungle for them. Nope can't do it.]
Profile Image for Liz.
2,018 reviews2,517 followers
February 21, 2022
Candice Millard won me over with her nonfiction about President Garfield, The Destiny of the Republic. Once again, she has written a well researched book about a well known historical figure; time time Teddy Roosevelt. But she doesn’t tackle his time as President, but rather his exploration of a South American river after he lost his third bid for the presidency. The River of Doubt was one of the most dangerous rivers on earth. And Roosevelt’s expedition was ill prepared. Three men died during the trip. What was amazing is that anyone at all survived the trip, dealing as they were with Indian attacks, murder, inadequate food supplies, malaria, snakes, crocodiles, piranha and whitewater rapids.
I once again appreciated Millard’s ability to weave in a variety of information into her story. The story is meticulously researched.
Be prepared for gory descriptions. I shuddered at the idea of the Candiru catfish. A very interesting tale but not one for the faint hearted.
Profile Image for Brian.
688 reviews335 followers
March 19, 2023
“The strenuous life.”

The best thing about THE RIVER OF DOUBT is author Candice Millard’s breathtaking descriptions of the Amazon as a battlefield between life and death every second of every day. Ms. Millard’s awe and respect for nature is apparent in this book. Chapter 12 (The Living Jungle) is a highlight as we get a naturalists take on the Amazon. The insane amount of knowledge dumped on the reader in this book is stimulating, awe inspiring, and sometimes cringy. Chapter 13 (Ink Black River) contains a section that I defy any man to read and not squirm when Millard shares some tidbits about the Candiru. (If you know, you know). The Amazon, river and jungle, is the most important and the most interesting “character” in this book. And Millard brings it to vivid life.

This text is about an expedition that Teddy Roosevelt took in 1914 to explore an unchartered tributary of the Amazon know as the River of Doubt. The author explores the expedition and the people who undertook it chronologically, all the whole telling the “story” of the nature the expedition is working its way through. It is a narrative of adventure, of civilizations, of history, and geography and all weaved through a tale of the human capacity for endurance.

Some highlights:
* Ms. Millard deftly navigates the prejudices of the period without getting bogged down in 21st century mores. A skill that only the best of historians value and possess.
* The sections about the Cinta Larga tribe are very intriguing. The Cinta Larga remained a Stone Age people well into the 1960s. Mankind was flying to the moon, and at the same time their isolation in the Amazon had them living in the manner of thousands of years ago. That is vastly fascinating!
* The thoughtful examination of the other men who undertook this expedition with Roosevelt. He may be the one we all remember, but Millard gives the entire group its due.

• “…but only on condition that each works with might and main to so maintain himself as not to be a burden to others.”
• “Even more disturbing than what they knew was what they did not know.”
• “He talked endlessly and on all conceivable subjects.” (about Roosevelt)
• “Death and dangers, in spite of how much suffering they bring, should not interfere with the expedition’s mission.”
• “In its intense and remorseless competition for every available nutrient, the Amazon offered little just for the taking.”
• “The very pathetic myth of ‘beneficent nature’ could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics.”
• “The River of Doubt, moreover, was one of the worst places on earth to be sick.”
• “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die.”
• “For outsiders who are forced to spend lengthy periods in the rain forest, one of its most oppressive and frequently mentioned features is its relentless monotony.”
• “…in the delicately balanced, constantly evolving reality of the tropical rain forest, nothing ever remains the same.”

THE RIVER OF DOUBT was a good read. I have now read two of Millard’s books and I will certainly read her others. In this text she brought to life the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition and its journey. A journey so spectacular that no one was able to successful do the same thing again for another 12 years after its completion. Large personalities, world’s colliding, the awesomeness of nature, bravery, and cowardice. It’s all here in this text.
Take the journey!
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
August 6, 2015
This is one of those books that I both loved and hated. I loved it because it's an exciting outdoor adventure, it's interesting history, and it's an impressive survival tale.

But at times I also hated it because the disaster story is so frustrating. I got really irritated with Teddy Roosevelt — I mean, the guy was a stubborn, egotistical ass — and I repeatedly wished I could travel back in time just to yell at him to GIVE IT UP AND GO HOME. Not that he would have listened.

A quick summary: After Teddy Roosevelt left the American presidency in 1909, he went on an African safari. In 1912, he tried to run for president again, but he lost the nomination. Frustrated at home, he was looking for a new adventure and seized on an idea to cruise down the Amazon River.

And this is where the problems started. First, Roosevelt did none of the planning for the trip. He left that to an incompetent priest, Father Zahm, who then farmed out the task to a store clerk named Anthony Fiala, who had never been to the Amazon and who was also famous for a disastrous North Pole expedition.

So, right from the start, the expedition was not prepared to head to the Amazon. When they landed in South America, they had way too much baggage, much of it ill-suited for the rainforest. And then, Teddy Roosevelt got the terrible idea that instead of taking a pleasant boat trip down the Amazon River, which was a known route, it would be much more exciting to explore an unknown area, such as the River of Doubt.

The arrogance. The ignorance. The naïveté. I could exhaust a thesaurus describing how stupid this plan was. There were too many men, not enough proper supplies and not enough proper boats. The entire expedition was doomed to be a failure the moment Roosevelt changed his mind.

The book follows the group's overland march through the jungle to the River of Doubt, and then their slow and dangerous river descent. It's one of those stories where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There were some truly terrifying descriptions of the different ways the jungle can kill a person, such as malaria, poisonous snakes and insects, piranhas, and a hundred other predators. And don't forget the indigenous tribes of the region, who knew how to survive in the jungle and could have easily attacked and killed Roosevelt's group. One of the Brazilians guiding the expedition, Rondon, left peace offerings for the tribes whenever possible, which the author thinks is why the expedition was allowed to pass through the region (relatively) unharmed.

So, did Roosevelt make it out of the jungle alive? Yes, but barely. He was injured and diseased, and he was so weakened by the journey that he died just a few years later. The book has a good epilogue, explaining that after everything Roosevelt had been through in the jungle, few believed his story when he got home.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes adventure, survival stories or the history of the Amazon. There are also some great stories about what a manly-man Roosevelt was, and even though he comes across as an ass, I can understand why he was so admired and revered.

But I wouldn't follow him into the jungle. I don't have a death wish.

Funniest Line
"If you are shot by a man because he is afraid of you it is almost as unpleasant as if he shot you because he disliked you." — Theodore Roosevelt

Favorite Quote
"Within such an intricate world of resourcefulness, skill, and ruthless self-interest, refined over hundreds of millions of years, Roosevelt and his men were, for all their own experience and knowledge, vulnerable outsiders. Most of the men were veteran outdoorsmen, and many of them considered themselves masters of nature. They were stealthy hunters, crack shots, and experienced survivalists, and, given the right tools, they believed that they would never find themselves in a situation in the wild that they could not control. But as they struggled to make their way along the River of Doubt, any basis for such confidence was quickly slipping away. Compared with the creatures of the Amazon, including the Indians whose territory they were invading, they were all — from the lowliest comrade to the former president of the United States — clumsy, conspicuous prey."
Profile Image for Faith.
1,844 reviews516 followers
July 22, 2020
I had read "Roosevelt's Beast" by Louis Bayard, which is a fictionalization of Theodore Roosevelt's expedition to the River of Doubt in the Amazon. I didn't love that book, but it intrigued me enough to want to read the true account (minus the mythical creature). I was not disappointed by "River of Doubt". It was an excellent adventure story and history lesson.

After losing his bid for a third presidential term, Roosevelt was looking for distraction. As originally planned, his trip to South America was going to be pretty tame and was sponsored by the Museum of Natural History. However, the trip morphed into a dangerous expedition to map the River of Doubt and explore the surrounding territory. Both the preparation for, and the organization of, this expedition were flawed, to say the least. They had to split off some of the original intended explorers, losing both their expertise and a share of the provisions. An elderly priest (who had planned the original trip) was shunted off when he decided that he would explore from the comfort of a sedan chair. The remaining group of just over 20 men included Roosevelt, one of his sons Kermit, Brazilian soldiers, indians and others. Some were experienced explorers, but not always successful ones. They had to lighten their load in order to get to the river, so much of their food had to go. (A lot of it was impractical anyway. Really, you need a crate of mustard or applesauce?) Unfortunately, their boats had to go too, leaving them to forage for makeshift, leaky canoes once they reached the river. I was really surprised to learn that they brought their pet dogs (and books) with them. The actual river part of the trip took about 2 months, but I'm sure it felt like longer to them. Both of the Roosevelts were adventurers and daredevils, but they had not had to cope with the number of adversities that plagued them in the Amazon, including gruesome parasites, venomous snakes, insects, accidents, diseases, hostile indians, impassable rapids and murder. This was a really fascinating story and very well written.
Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews308 followers
December 31, 2013
River of Doubt is a well spun tale for those who enjoy adventure, history and nature. Packed with suspense and unnerving descriptions of the Amazon rainforest and its wildlife, Millard turns Roosevelt’s journey into a compelling story as you are pulled from one chapter immediately into the next. The style is more entertaining than Millard’s very interesting but drier Destiny of the Republic about James Garfield.

I remember a saying from my Navy days referring to the sailors of old, “When ships were wood and men were steel.” This aptly describes Roosevelt and his party as they descended an uncharted jungle river in their dugout canoes. I found myself torn between admiring their bravery, endurance and perseverance on the one hand and shaking my head at their bullheadedness, fatalism and indifference to how their risks, disappearance or death would impact their loved ones back home.

I began to wonder, was Teddy Roosevelt’s bravado overcompensation for an underlying emptiness? He always had to prove himself. Millard cites the development of his toughness to overcome his frailty as a child. Teddy went on to shape his children to be like himself, to take on and face danger. He encouraged them to enlist in WWI where one was killed. He took his son Kermit on his Amazon adventure where both could have easily died.

Did his emptiness run in the family? Kermit, the strong silent type who though admired while young, went on to succumb to alcoholism. He ended up committing suicide. Teddy Roosevelt’s brother Elliott also was highly respected in his youth only to die young from alcoholism. Having recently read Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, I realized Elliott’s daughter Eleanor was another Roosevelt self-driven to over-achieve. Were these closely related Roosevelt’s separated by a thin dividing line between greatness and self-destruction? One of the best things about reading history is looking for such patterns and the psychologies and interplay of personalities that make great and impactful people.

This is the third really good book I have read this year where adventure is cast in the context of nature and each takes a different tack. Of these, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is most remarkable for being able to bring out his reverence of the North Carolina Mountains directly through his story and characters. Rather than treat nature as a separate topic or force Frazier skillfully portrays the interdependence and unity of nature and man. Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country reflects an environmentalist’s concerns for the decline of the Everglades, inserting frequent ecological facts using the adventure story as a point of departure, resulting in a book with two separate stories. Millard uses her sensationalist depictions of nature to add a sense of foreboding, danger and suspense and thus as an embellishment to the adventure story. In addition to disparate styles each book shows a different attitude towards nature by man. Frazier’s is one of man’s need to be close to nature, Matheissen’s is one of man’s utilitarian view of nature and indifference to the consequences, and Millard’s is one of man’s attempt to conquer nature. Comparing and contrasting the styles and themes of the books we like is one of the joys of reading.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books551 followers
February 1, 2021
What a fascinating, strange, stubborn, crazy man Teddy Roosevelt was! This story focuses on his journey to the Amazon, and it is certainly quite a trip! I don't know how he or any member of his party survived everything they went through. Millard has a real talent making for making nonfiction read like fiction, and it was compelling from beginning to end. She interwove the story of the expedition with parts of Teddy's history and family life, which made it feel really rounded and engaging. Looking forward to reading more by this author!

Find my book reviews and more at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,074 reviews711 followers
March 9, 2017
This book tells of a chapter of Theodore Roosevelt's life that was not widely known these days, at least before this book was published. After the failure of his Bull Moose party to carry him to a third term as president, T.R. went looking for adventure (probably in an effort to ward off depression). One thing led to another until he very nearly got himself, his son and others killed in the heart of the Amazon River basin.

The dangers of the Amazon rain forest are so thoroughly described in this book that I'm convinced that the reader is more aware of the danger and trouble TR's party was in than the actual participants. Eventually their predicament is so bad that the reader can't see how they can possibly survive. Readers familiar with history will know that it's not yet time for TR to die. Nevertheless, the mystery finally presented by this book is, how in the world are they going to get out this fix alive?

The real hero of this book, in my opinion, is Cândido Rondon the Brazilian who was the real leader of the group. Roosevelt was more famous, but Rondon was the one who made it happen. He was and continued to be known for his lifelong support of the Brazilian indigenous populations. He believed it important not to kill the native peoples. It was an attitude not widely shared then in Brazil, and thus he was ahead of his time with his enlightened beliefs.

One indication of the difficulties experienced by the expedition was that TR lost a quarter of his body weight (220 lbs to 165 lbs) in a two month time span. He was only 5'-8" tall, so 165 lbs sounds like a good weight to me. But physically he ended up in a very weak condition and close to death due to an infection (antibiotics didn't exist yet).

I found Theodore Roosevelt's own version of the expedition at the following web address. The on-line text is from the book Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Roosevelt published in 1914.

Here's a link to an excerpt from the The River of Doubt:
Profile Image for Darla.
3,340 reviews524 followers
October 12, 2022
An epic survival story starring a larger-than-life former president. Candace Millard's documentation of this harrowing trip down and uncharted river in Brazil is full of details that make you feel like you are there in the dugout canoes with the travelling party.

I have listened to this book twice now and as the narration proceeded this second time there were details that I had never forgotten. Millard is famous for her richly detailed and researched tales. This one is no exception and I think may be my favorite.

Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Kevin.
29 reviews7 followers
October 22, 2007
Teddy Roosevelt is a MAN. I was a big TR fan before and an even bigger one now which is a nice surprise considering that I wasn't expecting much from this book.

There is one scene that I think sums up how impressive TR was. It comes when they are slightly more than half way through their journey, although the exploration party has no way of knowing that. TR has an infected leg, a fever, and has already stated that he should be left behind for certain death because he is a burden on the others. He's been giving most of his rations, which were already below sustenance levels to the native porters because they needed the nutrients more than he did. And with all this going on, not to mention the bugs, he's borrowed a book of French poetry from his son Kermit (because he already read everything he bought) and he is complaining about the book (but nothing else) because he doesn't like French.

This is a great book for illustrating really how much of the world was still unexplored even up to a 100 years ago.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
616 reviews337 followers
December 1, 2019
4✚ 🛶 🛶 🛶 🛶
Teddy Roosevelt—More than a man's man, what can I say?!
Love this line from GR friend Jeffrey Keeten's great review: "If you just heard a CLANK that was Roosevelt’s brass balls." https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
And Cândido Rondon as the man in charge who won't allow himself or his men to partake of food left in a vacated cabin when they're wasting away—that would be thievery and he's a man of honor.
The molds were obviously thrown away after these men were created.
Excellently narrated. As expected, wonderfully written.
Can a book wear you out physically and make you feel inadequate? Absolutely.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
888 reviews122 followers
May 4, 2020
“In the early morning light, the scene that Roosevelt beheld was a breathtaking tableau of timeless nature-tranquil and apparently unchanging. That impression, however, could hardly have been more dangerous, more deceiving. For, even as the men of the expedition gazed at the natural beauty surrounding them, creatures of the rain forest were watching them, identifying them as intruders, assaying their potential value, surveying their weakness, preparing to take whatever they had to give.”

I put off reading this book while reading many other adventure books on the Amazon that I could find, only because I thought that this book would be a tedious boring read, much like many travel diaries. Well, it was anything but. The author had brought it alive, as a result this is the best one that I have ever read on this subject. I would give it ten stars if I could.

My interest in rain forests came about when my friend Julie and I took a walk through one to reach the ruins of Bonampak just in Mexico, just 30 miles from the Guatemalan border. I had never seen anything more beautifu. I would have loved to have lived there, but then again, after leaving the jungle, I could say that I had I had never seen anything more treacherous. After walking for 11k to Bonampak, spending the night in a hammock, and walking out the following day, my friend Juil.ie had contacted malaria, and I had two bott fly larvae in my head, that is, under my skin, eating their way to my skull, even laying eggs. We were both ill. So, what would happen to Roosevelt and his men in the several months they spent in the jungle?

To really be able to survive the jungle for any length of time, I think that a person would have to have been born in one of the native tribes that had survived there for many generations. Yet, I am sure that others have done just that, perhaps by living with the natives. I don’t know. The natives must have been immune to the dangerous insects or just had cures for malaria, et c.

The Indians wore no clothing, and soon, Roosevelt understood why since the jungle’s foliage ripped at his and the other men’s clothing, and the ants and termites chewed up every article of clothing that they could find packed in bags. Then they began on the clothing that the men wore.

The native Indians were unseen, but their presence was felt, ad this was very unnerving as were many other things that they had to deal with on their trip. W hen waring, the Indians put feathers on their heads and wrapped a large piece of bark around their abdomen to protect them from an enemy’s arrows. It was said that you would not see the Indian until he had shot an arrow at you, and even then you only saw a flash of colorful feathers on the Indian’s head. By then it was too late for this tribe poisonous arrows.
While the men thought that the jungle was beautiful, they soon began to only see a wall of green, no different than the sea or the sky of blue. Other colors disappeared. One year I went to visit my brother in Orgon where he was living in the woods. I noted how beautiful it was, and he replied, “We don’t’ see it anymore. All we see is rain.” It was like this for Roosevelt’s men, but it was even more, for the men were tired, they had malaria, the insects were way too much for them, and they were starving as well.

The jungle was alive, every inch of it. There were poisonous and nonpoisonous insects, snakes, alligators, piranhas, poisonous frogs, and anything else that you could dream up, not to mention wild boars and jaguars. Mosquitoes, black flies, and other crawling and flying insects proved to be the most dangerous part of their trip, at least in some ways. The men all developed sores from the black fly bites, which became infected and festered. There were no antibiotics in 1914 when this trip was taken, and, as I had said, they came down with malaria. The quinine for malaria did not help. If they got a cut, the cut would become infected due to the humidity. At least they did not run into any wild boars or jaguars. . Running out of food, losing men and canoes were also serious problems.

Yhe most interesting chapter in this book was chapter 12 because it gave descriptions of the jungle, its plant and animal life. There were also sounds that no one could identified that unnerved the men. The howler monkey in the jungle of Bonampak unnerved Julie and I, but only because we didn’t know what animal was making the sounds. Imagine hearing strange sounds that even the Indians couldn’t identify, sounds that caused even the animal life to become silent, which in turn caused the men to wonder what was coming next. This quote from the book says it all:
“These strange sounds, which disappeared as quickly as they came and were a mystery to those who knew the rain forest best, had made a strong impression on the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates fifty years earlier. ‘Often, even in the still hours of midday, a sudden crash will be heard resounding afar through the wilderness, as some great bough or entire tree falls to the ground. There are besides, many sounds that it is impossible to account for. I found the natives, generally, as much at a loss in this respect as myself. Sometimes a sound is heard like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree…’”
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,890 reviews218 followers
February 6, 2022
“Less than eighteen months after Roosevelt’s dramatic, failed campaign for an unprecedented third term in the White House, the sweat-soaked figure before [ornithologist] Cherrie in the jungle darkness could not have been further removed from the power and privilege of his former office. Hundreds of miles from help or even any outside awareness of his ordeal, Roosevelt hovered agonizingly on the brink of death. Suffering from disease and near-starvation, and shuddering uncontrollably from fever, the man who had been the youngest and most energetic president in his nation’s history drifted in and out of delirium, too weak to sit up or even to lift his head.”

Dramatic account of the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition into the dark reaches of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest to explore an uncharted river in 1913-1914. After losing the presidential election in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, embarked on a trip to South America. The above quote appears in the opening chapter, and the author then provides a riveting story of how the former president reached such an imperiled state.

Roosevelt was known for his adventurous spirit and willingness to risk his life, though this particular journey was originally not planned to be so arduous. The route was changed after the planning and supplying had already been completed. It occurred before the advent of antibiotics and any method to communicate with the outside world. The result is a harrowing experience, brilliantly described by the author and pieced together from the participants’ journals and related research.

“Even more disturbing than what they knew was what they did not know. The obvious riddle of the river’s course was only one of a thousand potentially lethal mysteries that now surrounded them. As they plunged deeper and deeper into the jungle, the riot of nature that enveloped them—from the crowded canopy overhead to the buzzing, insect-laden air around their faces to the unseen depths of the black river—became increasingly strange, unfamiliar, and threatening, to say nothing of the constant threat of Indian attack, which transformed every shadow into a potential enemy.”

Not only do we follow the details of a grueling journey, but we also get a feeling for what Roosevelt was like as a person. In addition, we learn about one of Brazil’s most renowned explorers, Colonel Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, co-leader of the expedition, who never wavered in his dedication to the indigenous Brazilians. I became completely absorbed in the narrative, turning the pages long into the night. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys tales of exploration, adventure, and survival.
Profile Image for Jim.
562 reviews85 followers
March 21, 2021
TR has always been one of the more interesting historical figures for me and I have read several books about him. I knew about his failed bid for a third term as President ... running as a candidate on the Progressive Party (a.k.a Bull Moose Party) ticket. I did not know what happened after he lost the election. At least not the details. Roosevelt received an invitation to speak in Buenos Aires, Argentina and since his son Kermit lived in South America it seemed liked an ideal opportunity to visit his son, explore the Amazon River basin, and forget about his political humilation. Initially the planned trip was for relatively safe and known rivers when when Brazil's minister of foreign affairs told Roosevelt about an unknown river worth exploring: Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt. Roosevelt and his team joined forces with Brazil's most famous explorer, Candido Rondon. The trip quickly went from tour to survival contest.

Roosevelt was in this 50's at the time. He had survived an assassination attempt and one leg was permanently damaged when the carriage he was riding in was hit by a trolley. He had been a rancher in the Badlands and led his men up San Juan Hill during a climatic battle of the Spanish-American war. While a student at Harvard he had taken up boxing . There is no disputing the fact that Roosevelt was tough but this trip nearly killed him. The Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition as it was officially known endured insects, disease, fevers, wounds, hostile Indians, lost boats and supplies. Reading what the members of the expedition endured I was left amazed that Roosevelt made it home.

This was a fascinating story about a chapter in history that is little known. While I admire Teddy Roosevelt I sometimes am left to wonder. The original plan had been for a trip over known rivers. When someone suggested a trip down an unknown river instead his response was "Bully". The expedition was unprepared for such a trip and it is a miracle that any of them survived. Overall a fascinating story!
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
February 6, 2017
Non-fiction often gives me the yawns, but not this! Nope - 4.5 and totally unexpected. Am I the only well-educated, yet totally ignorant middle ager who did not know this about Teddy Roosevelt?? What a helluva story.

Basic background: Roosevelt was vice president in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated, and like LBJ, became president by succession. He won re-election fair and square a few years later, was awarded the Nobel Prize for ending the Russian-Japanese war (I'd never even heard of that!), brought about New Deal programs to bring fairness to all, created National Parks, and way more. Basically, there is good reason that his profile is carved up there on Mt. Rushmore with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. Roosevelt was practically worshipped, not just for his accomplishments, but for his attitude and enthusiasm. If you saw the family movie "Night at the Museum" then you saw Robin Williams play the role of Roosevelt. Yeah, it's just a fun kiddy movie, and I hope you'll forgive me for referencing it, but Williams did his homework to portray Roosevelt well. Full of life and kindness.

We actually do not hear too much about his political past in this book, although we come to understand how he came to love nature and refused to buckle under physical hardship (he had severe asthma as a child). This tale focuses on the geographical exploration he co-led into a massive section of the unmapped, un-named, and unknown part of the Amazon River basin. The river they were to explore may or may not have been a tributary of the Amazon - nobody knew - and it was literally named the River of Doubt - "Rio da Dúvida."

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, what started out as a trip to South America to make a few speeches and tour around the Amazon a bit turned into a horribly ill-prepared expedition organized by guys who either had only visited South America as a tourist or had never been south of the border (but had led a group to nearly starve to death on an expedition to the Arctic). Neither of them spoke a lick of Portuguese.

The provisions packed by these men included cases of fancy mustard, spices, wine, cigars, olive oil, and other non-necessities that so overloaded the mules that when the creatures had to haul the supplies across a desert-like plateau, half the mules dropped dead. This first of many disasters began en route to the head waters of "Rio da Dúvida" - they had not even begun the expedition yet!

The remaining, but tottering mules bucked off even more cases. When the party crossed the initial arid region on muleback, they split into two groups - the forward party was to get most of the boats, surveying equipment, tents, cases of provisions, etc to the river before the expedition officers would arrive. As Roosevelt, his adult son Kermit, and others found as they followed, the route before them was littered with dead mules and random, unmarked boxes of supplies. Were they leaving behind books and mustard, or was it rice and beans? No idea. Until they started to unpack the boxes, the men had no idea the luxuries and non-life supporting doodads that had been carted in.

Obviously, Roosevelt was given inaccurate information about the expedition up front, but upon realizing it, he was not about to back down. He loved adventure. He was aware that they had no idea the length of the River of Doubt, but only knew where it's headwaters were. The local expedition leader, Candido Rondon estimated as best he could the length of their journey but was ridiculously off in his guess. Those who did not die on the trip nearly starved to death and fought off injury, infection, malaria, dysentery, mosquitoes, coral snakes, cannibals, drowning, and a lot of misery. After the first five weeks, they didn't know if they would live to ever get out of the jungle.

As it turned out, the river snaked back and forth on itself repeatedly and gouged through canyon after canyon, burst over rapids too frenzied for them to even contemplate, and worse. Their lightweight boats were taken by a handful of explorers who bailed out of the trip (or were fired), so Roosevelt's group of 19 had only DUGOUT TREES to travel 1000 miles of river. Look, I go kayaking every couple of weeks on calm water, and the description of what they had to go through - even having to cut down trees and carve out new dug-outs when their others were smashed to pieces - blows my mind. Beyond all this is that the former president of the United States was doing this! No bodyguards, no Secret Service - heck, no antibiotics. They weren't around back then! Roosevelt and his adult son, Kermit were seen practically as royalty and yet were out there trying to shoot monkeys in order to have the men not starve. Throw in septic infection, extreme fever, and surgery in the middle of the rainforest, and it is understandable why three men died. That no more than that did is miraculous.

In sum, this story is totally fascinating, and by the author's clever interspersing excerpts of Roosevelt's trip diary, it is as if you have him "live" with you while reading. She has pieces of the letters written by others on the trip - during the expedition and after - so we are able to get inside the heads of the other officers, too. The camaradas' (porters) viewpoints can only be inferred by their courageous acts and description of them by the officers. The camaradas' compassion and respect for members of the expedition was such that they were willing to dig a grave in the middle of the jungle (with bare hands, as the shovels were gone) while the cannibalistic Cinta Larga Indians shadowed them.

If you need a gift for Father's Day, grab this stat...and read it for yourself before handing it over. No doubt about it - it is on my favorites shelf.
Profile Image for John.
466 reviews26 followers
January 26, 2013
I thought Candice Millard's other book Destiny of the Republic was one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, so I thought I should go back and read this, her first book. I must say River of Doubt may be even better, if not for her writing but for the absolutely amazing story she tells. Teddy Rosevelt's exepedition in the heart of the Amazon jungle may be a footnote in history, but Millard brings it to life as one of the most compelling adventure tales I've ever read. Millard does take her time building up the background here, as most good historians would, but when the journey gets under way, the book becomes difficult to put down. Millard relates these events with a brisk pace, tense suspense and copious detail. Not only do we learn about Rossevelt's personality and character we also learn much about the Amazon's ecosystem, infectious diseases, and the myriad of dangerous creatures that inhabit the jungle. This book is both highly informative and hugely entertaining. Whether you're a reader of non-fiction or not, I recommend this to anyone interested in reading a great ripping yarn.
Profile Image for Laura.
822 reviews243 followers
March 29, 2017
I'm either maturing as a reader or authors are getting better at making non-fiction more appealing to fiction junkies, like me. I think it's the latter. So very interesting.
Profile Image for Mara.
400 reviews280 followers
May 23, 2022
Upon losing the 1912 presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt, adrenaline/adventure junkie extraordinary, “resorted to the only therapy he knew: physical hardship and danger.” Enter the Amazon and the heretofore uncharted “River of Doubt.” As someone who has spent a good chunk of time journeying outside of civilization (e.g. backpacking along the Appalachian Trail, sailing from Mexico to Tahiti out of site of land for a solid month), TR's decisions had me cringing throughout the story. In addition to relying on a man whose claim to fame was eking out of the Arctic barely-alive to outfit their expedition, the creepy crawlies they encounter are straight out of episodes of River Monsters and Monsters Inside Me.
Note to self: do not attempt to hold a piranha in mouth and/or pee in water that may be inhabited by candiru.
Millard spends a good deal of time expounding as to why the jungle is the punishing environment that it is. But, I'll just share Sterling Archer's sentiments which sum things up pretty well:

Not only are they ill-prepared for the physical environment, but the crew of characters is bound for culture clash from the start. Anyone who has ever ventured into the wilderness with a group of others knows just how much truth there is to the following:
A man may be a pleasant companion when you always meet him clad in dry clothes, and certain of substantial meals at regulated intervals, but the same cheery individual may seem a very different person when you are both on half rations, eaten cold, and have been drenched for three days—sleeping from utter exhaustion, cramped and wet.

My real disappointment with this book is my own fault- that I wanted to learn more about TR (but I suppose that's what Edmund Morris' books are around for). I'd recommend this for anyone who's in the mood for a good adventure tale, or is looking to see another side of this Rough Rider.
Profile Image for Myla.
581 reviews16 followers
May 20, 2019
This really is a four or even a five star book for the research and layout, but I, thanks to David Attenborough, know how the Amazon jungle lives and kills....so it got a little over detailed for me, but nothing that a skip can't fix. I think there's a documentary on this exploration too, that would probably be sufficient of you're interested.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,272 reviews556 followers
April 23, 2016
WOW! What research, photos, and what a journey. The onus, plotting/planning portion, the experience itself- mind boggling. It would never, never, never happen in this century.

Personality like a Viking times two (son Kermit= times three). Space travel would be the only enterprise I could think of, and I did think about this one for awhile, that would come close to what these men proposed and constructed to occur. The unknowns are actually probably less for space travel than they were for where/who/what down the River of Doubt.

Well, in today's politico or pc think rigidity- this entire journey would not be highly praised. Or might not be deemed an enviable triumph either. Theodore was bully.

Is Teddy on any of our currency? I do not think so. If he was, they would be knocking him off entirely like they are for Andrew Jackson.

This physical feat is so widely difficult that even the descriptions can be off-putting. So be warned. If snakes, bugs, poisons, parasites, or other outcomes even nastier than cannibalism bother you, don't read this outstanding record within Amazon Basin Brazil for an exploratory deed accomplished.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,376 reviews1,431 followers
November 8, 2015
The River of Doubt is non-fiction at its best. First of all, the story is amazing. The whole thing reads like a dungeon crawl through a jungle scenario, but it actually happened! Throughout the book, as the men struggle with leaky canoes, predators on land and in the river, cannibals (really!), constant insects and bacteria, discontent among the party itself, and their quest to go down a river that no one has ever gone down before, Millard puts in back stories for everyone so that you really care about them and are learning at the same time.

All of which takes me to another of non-fiction's (and this book's) strengths: education through entertainment. Frankly, I didn't know much about Teddy Roosevelt before I read this and now I know that he was so hardcore. He was born with severe asthma and determined to never let his body slow him down. So, he didn't. And, along the way, he became one of the most vital and athletic men of his generation.

Now, as amazing as this book is, and as astonishing as it was that some of the men even made it, I just kept thinking what a waste of human life the whole thing was. If these men had never gone down the river, I believe mankind would have eventually mapped it anyway. With satellite technology, improvements in medicine and communications, we would have gone down the river and maybe not lost anyone. It reminded me of Rondon's extreme losses when he stretched telegraph wire across Brazil's interior. A couple of months after he completed this monumental task, with the loss of hundreds of soldiers, pack animals, and native Brazilians, the telegraph became outdated. I understand that he didn't know that this was going to happen when he put forth such effort to accomplish it, but it all just seems like a waste in hindsight.

I don't know what makes men and women determine how to live their lives and decide what sorts of losses are acceptable during their completion, but I don't think that I could have lived with myself if I had been in charge of that expedition. I would have been forever haunted by the men who drowned or lost their lives to disease, native attacks, whatever. I guess I'm saying that if it had been me, The River of Doubt would have remained doubtful... at least for a time.

To my mind, the main tragedy of this story, beyond the obvious losses, is what eventually happens to Kermit, Roosevelt's son. He steps up to challenges far beyond the normal in the Amazon but then his life seems to completely fall apart. I felt very sorry for him- that he couldn't puzzle out a way to live a normal life with such a larger than life father figure. I guess that could be true of all of the President's children, no matter what time period they lived in. We've all heard of George Washington, but whatever happened to his kids? Who knows...

If you enjoyed The River of Doubt, you may also enjoy Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (another extraordinary non-fiction story of survival and courage) or Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes-and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond by Maria Coffey (to explore why people are driven to put themselves in extreme situations in order to touch the infinite inside themselves).
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,688 reviews451 followers
February 20, 2017
Theodore Roosevelt needed to lift his spirits after his defeat in the 1912 presidential election in a third-party run. He had been invited for a lecture tour in South America, and added the challenge of a trip to the Amazon region. When he reached Brazil, he changed his plans from exploring a known river to embarking on a journey along the uncharted River of Doubt. Theodore Roosevelt was accompanied by his son Kermit Roosevelt, the Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Rondon, a naturalist, a doctor, and the camaradas who toiled as paddlers and porters. Rondon acted as the commander, and mapped the river.

The expedition was poorly supplied with boats that were too heavy for paddling through the rapids. The River of Doubt was dangerous with poisonous snakes, piranhas, impassable rapids and waterfalls, the possibility of attack by Indians, and constant swarms of insects. The men were starving when they ran low on provisions, and were fighting malaria and other infections. Although there were many people on this journey to admire, it is questionable if they would have survived without the leadership of Colonel Rondon.

The book is an adventure story as well as a historical account of part of Roosevelt's life. The author, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, impressed me with her nature writing as well. She adds interesting information about everything from the science of tectonic plates forming the Andes to how the plants and animals of the Amazon evolved to ensure survival. I enjoyed this Brazilian adventure through the uncharted territory on the River of Doubt.
Profile Image for MaryCatherine.
187 reviews18 followers
January 2, 2020
So many great reviews and summaries of this book are already on Goodreads and I already spent a chunk of precious and waning Christmas prep time on finishing this riveting tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s greatest adventure—so I encourage readers to look at other reviews on Goodreads. For my part, I was completely transported by this account of this arduous and ambitious journey. I learned a great deal about jungle exploration, indigenous tribes, colonial history, and the personal characters and solid nerve of the two leaders of the expedition, Rondon and Theodore Roosevelt. Their courage and determination, and their respect for one another, exemplify in real life the heroes of legend—probably why my impression of TR was a caricature before reading this account—his accomplishments would be too unbelievable for fiction! Theodore Roosevelt was the real thing—devoted natural historian, adventurer, indomitable explorer, raconteur, rugged outdoorsman, writer, and known to friends as more of a listener than a talker. While TR’s huge presence nearly defies cool evaluation, Candice Millard manages a well-documented account with a modern historical eye, while writing a thrilling tale of a very different time that is nearly impossible to put down. I read the last half of the book without a pause! The story of their journey is more thrilling than any adventure novel or film I’ve seen! The picture of Theodore Roosevelt that emerges is far from hagiography or caricature, but his courage and character amaze me.
Profile Image for Lucy.
475 reviews592 followers
March 11, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt's leadership and charisma is a well documented part of American history. Although I'm sure I learned about him in my required history classes, and I've been to Mount Rushmore, I can't say that I knew much about him beyond the fact that he was a Rough Rider, a president, a large man, that he created the idea of a protected national park, and that he supposedly said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." I also suspected that he was related, somehow, to FDR, but never bothered to find out exactly how.

After reading River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, I can happily announce that I know much, much more about this phenomenal man. Like he's actually more closely related to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was his niece. But, don't let me fool you. This book isn't a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

Instead, Candice Miller, a National Geographic contributor, details one incredible year of his life - the year he decided to travel to the Amazon and risk all to charter a 600 mile previously unknown river: the Rio Duvida or River of Doubt.

Miller doesn't limit her writing to being a travelogue. Instead, she carefully sets up the background story and motivation for his trip. Roosevelt had just lost his bid for a third term as President of the United States and in his humiliation, agreed to an acquaintance's suggestion for high adventure.

The year was 1912 and the Amazon and it's many tributaries remained mostly unmapped and mysterious. Roosevelt was an advocate for "the strenuous life" so taking a year to rough it in the jungles of Brazil was not a big stretch for him personally. In spite of his own willingness, a man of his status and prestige does not just travel to the Amazon anonymously. His trip included a pre-adventure diplomatic tour through South America - a continent containing several countries who strongly disagreed with his foreign policy while president. It also included a large entourage in an attempt to ensure for this important man's safety.

For a non-fiction book about a dead president, a jungle and river I've little desire to explore and a country I've never been to, I was sucked into this drama. Miller is an excellent writer and the story unfolds in a very readable way. There was no textbook or even National Geographic feel to it at all. The only time I got bored was when she included information about the Amazon's soil or the properties of sedimentation on the river. Both were absolutely necessary to completely understand the present dangers, but, still....soil. It's not very sexy.

Highly recommend. A fascinating chapter in a fascinating man's life.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,673 reviews280 followers
October 16, 2012

My adult children tell me I am opinionated. Well, first of all, at my age I feel entitled to a few opinions. Here are a couple definitions: "unduly adhering to one's own opinion or to preconceived notion" (Merriam Webster); "someone who isn't afraid to give their personal opinion" (Urban Dictionary).

I think it boils down to two things. In this age of post-political-correctness, saying what one thinks is fraught, unless you are a political talk radio person or blogger. Opinions become opinionated views if one is not open to reinspecting them or even changing them from time to time.

For years and years I have preferred fiction (novels actually) to nonfiction. My only exceptions to this opinion were biographies and memoirs about writers and artists. In recent months my reading groups have been choosing more nonfiction. I have moaned and groaned, but I always read the chosen book. I have also been reading some history as research for my own memoir. The upshot of all this is that I have changed my opinion or at least altered it. I can learn from nonfiction, but more to the point I can enjoy it.

The River of Doubt did not change my opinion of Teddy Roosevelt, who has always seemed to me to have lived by an annoying ubermacho, war mongering creed. I got some insight into why that is in Candance Millard's book but I still feel that way. However, I also realized that I have a heretofore unadmitted weakness for extreme adventure tales, of which this book is a good example.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt lost a presidential election and got depressed. He couldn't lead his country, he had no war to fight in, so he turned to his other love: exploration. Apparently, he had always used extreme physical challenges as an antidote for depression. A never before explored river in the heart of the Amazon jungle was just the ticket.

While the story has its share of malaria, disgusting creatures, infected injuries and low food rations, it is still a fascinating journey through the jungle. Roosevelt met his match in Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, one of the toughest, most principled dudes I have ever met in any book. As these two alpha males duked it out, overcoming every possible barrier to making it down the river and back to civilization, the reader is there with them, their crew, the indigenous peoples, the piranhas, the monkeys and the bugs.

Despite a couple of lulls in the narrative, the story rages on, as though the author were channeling Roosevelt. In fact, she herself spent time on what is now called Rio Roosevelt. I read the whole book in two days. Nonfiction rocks!
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