Theodore Roosevelt's scientific trek through the Amazon wilderness in 1913-14 is not as well known as many other explorations of the Americas. In Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, his trip has finally found a chronicler equal to this astonishing story of horror and triumph. Millard understands Roosevelt as a man who always needed a challenge, especially after any personal loss or public defeat, such as he had suffered in losing the presidential election of 1912. Hence, Roosevelt agreed to lead a dangerous expedition down the unexplored 950-mile River of Doubt.
The former president left the details to two ignorant and ambitious men aiming to redeem their checkered careers with a triumphant venture using his famous name. They sent the party unprepared into a terrifying wilderness. Millard offers a powerful depiction of the merciless rain forest, where the expedition met festering insects that rent their skins, wild rapids requiring long portages and native tribes hostile to intruders. One calamity followed another. TR's darkest hour began when he jumped into the black river to save a loose boat. An injury turned into infection. He told the others to go on, planning to meet death with the vial of poison he had packed for use in such circumstances. Son Kermit, one of the heroes of this tale, defied his father, declaring that they would all stay together. Finally, they came upon settlements of poor folk who eked out a living tapping rubber trees, but shared what they had with TR's crew. Other heroes in this stirring story include Candido Rondon, the Brazilian who co-commanded the expedition. He had laid telegraph wires through the rain forest and his experience helped save the ill-charted enterprise. Today, Brazil honors him for his work to bring the Amazon's aboriginal people into the life of the nation. James Summerville serves as a trustee of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.