Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The River of Doubt, Candice Millard, Doubleday, 2005, 353 pp

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!

(The River of Doubt is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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