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'River' is thrilling, no doubt

Teddy Roosevelt comes alive in story of his Amazon trek

THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S DARKEST JOURNEY: THE RIVER OF DOUBT, by Candice Millard, Doubleday, 416 pages, $26.

In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt was our most extraordinary president.

Roosevelt held the office in his 40s, making him our youngest chief executive. He was a sickly boy who turned into a healthy, robust adventurer. He was unusually charismatic even though his reedy voice would have never made it in the TV generation, He was uncommonly sure of himself in almost all situations.

After all, Roosevelt was the president who "tortured his Cabinet" by leading them on walks through Rock Creek Park in all kinds of weather. And sometimes they even removed their clothes and "swam Rock Creek when ice was floating thick upon it," in Teddy's recollection.

But never did anyone expect that a former president in his mid-50s would lead a 1914 expedition down the Amazon River in Brazil in search of "Rio da Duvida" ("The River of Doubt"), an uncharted tributary where he would risk life and limb. (To some extent he did it because he needed to recover his self-esteem after losing the 1912 presidential election when he ran on the Bull Moose third-party ticket.)

In this situation, instead of battling politicians, Roosevelt found himself trying to survive confrontations with raging rapids, poisonous snakes and torrential rains. There were also piranhas, malevolent insect swarms, cannibalistic Indians, various potentially fatal infections, a dwindling food supply and destroyed canoes.

The expedition was badly organized from the start — before Roosevelt became connected to it — and he had to make some major decisions involving personnel. He sent people back who proved themselves incompetent for such an adventure.

The author of "Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey: The River of Doubt," a former staff writer for National Geographic, Candice Millard proves herself highly effective in telling a good story while including all the technical truths necessary to understand a part of the world that was then essentially unknown.

No armchair historian, Millard also personally traveled the Amazon River in order to better understand the problems experienced by this odd mixture of Americans and Brazilians. (According to Roosevelt, they spoke to each other in "an international amalgam of tongues that consisted of English, Portuguese, bad French and broken German.")

The most interesting thing about the book from a historical point of view is that the former president proved himself unflappable, courageous and wise under the most frightening and debilitating circumstances.

His equally adventurous son Kermit made the trip with him at the urging of his mother — to take care of his father — but Teddy ended up nursing his son back to health from serious attacks of malaria.

Eventually, Roosevelt himself suffered from fever and delirium and in the end barely escaped with his life. By the time they reached the end of the river, he had lost 55 pounds, and he called the trip the greatest hardship of his life. He also became the adventurer who changed the map of the Western Hemisphere, introducing the Roosevelt River.

This is an amazing book — interesting to a fault — and it portrays a side of Roosevelt unknown to most readers.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com