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.
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The line outside Madison Square Garden started to form at 5:30 p.m., just as an orange autumn sun was setting in New York City on Halloween Eve, 1912. The doors were not scheduled to open for another hour and a half, but the excitement surrounding the Progressive Party’s last major rally of the presidential campaign promised a packed house. The party was still in its infancy, fighting for a foothold in its first national election, but it had something that the Democrats had never had and the Republicans had lately lost, the star attraction that drew tens of thousands of people to the Garden that night: Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents in his nation’s history, had vowed never to run again after winning his second term in the White House in 1904. But now, just eight years later, he was not only running for a third term, he was, to the horror and outrage of his old Republican backers, running as a third-party candidate against Democrats and Republicans alike.
Roosevelt’s decision to abandon the Republican Party and run as a Progressive had been bitterly criticized, not just because he was muddying the political waters but because he still had a large and almost fanatically loyal following. Roosevelt was five feet eight inches tall, about average height for an American man in the early twentieth century, weighed more than two hundred pounds, and had a voice that sounded as if he had just taken a sip of helium, but his outsized personality made him unforgettable—and utterly irresistible. He delighted in leaning over the podium as though he were about to snatch his audience up by its collective collar; he talked fast, pounded his fists, waved his arms, and sent a current of electricity through the crowd. “Such unbounded energy and vitality impressed one like the perennial forces of nature,” the naturalist John Burroughs once wrote of Roosevelt. “When he came into the room it was as if a strong wind had blown the door open.”
Not surprisingly, Roosevelt was proving to be dangerous competition for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to say nothing of President William Howard Taft, the lackluster Republican incumbent whom Roosevelt had hand-picked to be his successor in the White House four years earlier. It was a bitterly contested race, and Roosevelt hoped that this rally, strategically scheduled just a week before election day, could help swing the vote in his favor.
Before the doors even opened, more than a hundred thousand people were swarming the sidewalks and choking the surrounding cobblestone streets. Men and boys nimbly wove their way through the crowd, boldly hawking tickets in plain sight of a hundred uniformed policemen. The scalpers had their work cut out for them selling tickets in the churning throng. Days earlier the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party in honor of its tenacious leader, had posted a NO MORE TICKETS sign, but brokers and street-corner salesmen had continued to do a brisk business. Dollar seats went for as much as seven dollars—roughly $130 in today's money—and the priciest tickets in the house could set the buyer back as much as a hundred dollars. On the chaotic black market, however, even experienced con men could not be sure what they had actually bought. When Vincent Astor, son of financier John Jacob Astor, arrived at his box, he found it already occupied by George Graham Rice, lately of Blackswell's Island—then one of New York's grimmest penitentiaries. When the police escorted him out, Rice complained bitterly that he had paid ten dollars for the two choice seats.
More than two thousand people tried to make it into the arena by bypassing the line and driving to the gate in a hired carriage or one of Henry Ford's open–air Model T’s. But this tactic did not work for everyone. Even Roosevelt’s own sister Corinne was turned away at the gate.
“For some unexplained reason the pass which had been given to me that night for my motor was not accepted by the policeman in charge, and I, my husband, my son Monroe, and our friend Mrs. Parsons were obliged to take our places in the cheering, laughing, singing crowd,” she later wrote. “How it swayed and swung! how it throbbed with life and elation! how imbued it was with an earnest party ambition, and yet, with a deep and genuine religious fervor. Had I lived my whole life only for those fifteen minutes during which I marched toward the Garden already full to overflowing with my brother's adoring followers, I should have been content to do so.” Caught up in the moment, fifty-one-year-old Corinne finally made it into the arena by climbing a fire escape.
Theodore Roosevelt, the object of all the furor, had nearly as much trouble trying to reach Madison Square Garden as his sister. The police had blocked off Twenty-seventh Street from Madison to Fourth Avenue for his car, but when his black limousine turned onto Madison Avenue at nine-fifteen, the excitement burning all night flamed into hysteria. A New York Sun reporter marveled at the chaos as swarms of people rushed Roosevelt's car, “yelling their immortal souls out. They went through a battery of photographers, tried to sweep the cops off their feet, tangled, jammed and shoved into the throng.”
Roosevelt, a little stiff in his black suit, stepped out of the car, raised his hat to the crowd, and walked through a narrow, bucking pathway that the policemen had opened through the suffocating press of bodies. As Roosevelt passed by, his admirers “had their brief and delirious howls, their cries of greeting,” one reporter wrote. When he opened a door that led directly onto the speaker's platform, the arena seemed to expand with his very presence, and the people outside “had to step back and watch the walls of the big building ripple under the vocal pressure from within, like the accordion-pleated skirt of a dancer.”
Inside the auditorium, Edith Roosevelt, every inch the aristocrat with her softly cleft chin and long, elegant neck, was seated in a box above the fray when a mighty roar rose up from the audience, heralding her husband’s entrance. Four colossal American flags greeted Roosevelt, waving grandly from the girdered ceiling, and an entire, massive bull moose stood mounted on a pedestal and bathed in a white spotlight, its head raised high, its ears erect, as if about to charge.
Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech—just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he had been shot in the chest by a thirty–six–year–old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt's run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt’s heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist's love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant's bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”
Now, in Madison Square Garden as the boisterous cheering went on for forty-one minutes, Roosevelt still had one of Schrank's bullets in his chest. At 10:03 p.m., pounding on the flag-draped desk in front of him and nervously snapping his jaws, he finally convinced the crowd that he was in earnest, and the hall slowly quieted. Unaided by a loudspeaker, an invention that would revolutionize public speaking the following year, he began his speech. “Friends….” At the sound of his voice, the crowd erupted into a thunderous cheer that continued for two more minutes. When it tapered off, he began again. “My friends,” he said, “perhaps once in a generation …”Suddenly, from seats close to the platform, a clamor arose as policemen tried to push back several people who had forced their way into the hall. Bending forward, Roosevelt bellowed, “Keep those people quiet, please! Officers, be quiet!”
Then, in a voice that filled the auditorium, Theodore Roosevelt launched into the last great campaign speech of his political career: “Friends, perhaps once in a generation, perhaps not so often, there comes a chance for the people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights.” He still had the old percussive rhythm, exploding his “p”s and “b”s with vigor, but his tone had lost the violence and his words the bitterness of the past. He did not attack his opponents—the coolly academic Wilson or the genial Taft. Instead, he talked in broad terms about character, moral strength, compassion, and responsibility. “We do not set greed against greed or hatred against hatred,” he thundered. “Our creed is one that bids us to be just to all, to feel sympathy for all, and to strive for an understanding of the needs of all. Our purpose is to smite down wrong.”
To the people in the hall, and to millions of Americans, Roosevelt was a hero, a leader, an icon. But even as he stood on the stage at Madison Square Garden, he knew that in six days he would lose not only the election but also this bright, unblinking spotlight. He would be reviled by many and then ignored by all, and that would be the worst death he could imagine.
“I know the American people,” he had said prophetically in 1910, upon returning to a hero’s welcome after an epic journey to Africa. “They have a way of erecting a triumphal arch, and after the Conquering Hero has passed beneath it he may expect to receive a shower of bricks on his back at any moment.”
On election day, November 5, 1912, Roosevelt’s grim expectations about his candidacy were realized in full. Woodrow Wilson took the White House in a landslide victory, winning 2.2 million more votes than Roosevelt out of the fifteen million cast. Roosevelt did not lose alone, however. He brought Taft, the incumbent Republican president, down with him. Only three and a half million Americans had voted for Taft, some six hundred thousand fewer than voted for Roosevelt and nearly three million fewer than Wilson. The Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, pulled in over nine hundred thousand votes, more than twice the number he had received during his presidential run four years earlier.
For Roosevelt, who was not used to losing, even his victory over Taft was cold comfort. He had long ago lost his respect for the three-hundred-pound president, dismissing him as “a flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him.” Besides, everyone knew that Taft hadn't really been in the race from the beginning. Before the Republican convention, even Taft's own wife, the fiercely ambitious Nellie, had told him, “I suppose you will have to fight Mr. Roosevelt for the nomination, and if you get it he will defeat you.”
She was right on both counts. Roosevelt had at first vied for the Republican nomination, and when party bosses ensured Taft’s victory, he had struck back by ensuring their defeat in the general election. As a third-party candidate, Roosevelt could not count on winning, but he could certainly spoil. When backed by a united Republican Party in his earlier election bids, Roosevelt had swept easily to victory over the Democrats. By turning his enormous popularity against his former party, however, he merely split the Republican vote and handed the election to Wilsona widely predicted result that, when it came to pass, provoked bitter criticism of his tactics. “Roosevelt goes down to personal and richly deserved defeat,” spat an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But he has the satisfaction of knowing that by giving vent to his insatiate ambition and deplorable greed for power he has elevated the democratic party to the control of the nation.”
Roosevelt had never been willing to share his private pain with the public. In a formal statement, he announced, "I accept the result with entire good humor and contentment." In private, however, he admitted to being surprised and shaken by the scope of his crushing defeat. “There is no use disguising the fact that the defeat at the polls is overwhelming,” he wrote to his friend the British military attache Arthur Hamilton Lee. “I had expected defeat, but I had expected that we would make a better showing… I try not to think of the damage to myself personally.”
The Republican Party’s Old Guard, once a bastion of Roosevelt’s friends and backers, held him responsible for the debacle that had put a Democrat in the White House for the first time in sixteen years. Before the Republican convention, they had assured Roosevelt that if he would only accept the party's decision to let Taft run for a second term in 1912, they would happily hand him the nomination four years later. But his injured pride and his passion for what he believed to be a battle against the nation's great injustices had driven him out of the fold. “Many of his critics could account for his leaving the Republican Party and heading another, only on the theory that he was moved by a desire for revenge,” William Roscoe Thayer, Roosevelt's friend and one of his earliest biographers, wrote in 1919. “If he could not rule he would ruin. The old allegation that he must be crazy was of course revived.”
Roosevelt spent that winter hunkered down at Sagamore Hill with his wife and their younger daughter, Ethel. He took walks with Edith, answered letters, and worked quietly in his book–lined study. He had few interruptions.
“The telephone, which had rung like sleigh–bells all day and half the night, was silent,” wrote Roosevelt’s young literary friend and eventual biographer Hermann Hagedorn. “The North Shore neighbors who, in the old days, had flocked to Sagamore at every opportunity, on horseback or in their high fancy traps, did not drive their new shining motor-cars up the new, hard-surfaced road the Roosevelts had put in the year before. The Colonel was outside the pale. He had done the unforgivable thing—he had ‘turned against his class.’ ”
Friends and colleagues who had once competed for Roosevelt's attention now shunned him. Roosevelt, like his wife, had been born into New York’s highest society. From childhood, he had been not only accepted but admired and undoubtedly envied as a Roosevelt, the older son of a wealthy and respected man. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had been a member of the exclusive and unapologetically elitist Porcellian Club. During the Spanish-American War, he had been glorified as a courageous colonel of his own regiment—Roosevelt's Rough Riders. And as president of the United States for nearly eight years, he had been at the apex of power and prestige. Now, for the first time in his life, he was a pariah, and he was painfully aware of it.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and author bio that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion about Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt. We hope that they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about the book. For more information, visit BroadwayBooks.com.
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1. Chapter one, “Defeat,” depicts dramatic scenes from Roosevelt’s final election. What parallels exist between a risky political career and a risky Rain Forest expedition? What enabled him to survive both?
2. Compare Rondon’s and Roosevelt’s leadership styles. In what ways did these co-commanders complement each other? In what ways were they at odds?
3. Discuss the very concept of survival as it shapes The River of Doubt. In choosing provisions, what items did Roosevelt’s team consider necessary for survival? What aspects of survival (greater quantities of dry, mildew-free clothes, for example) did they overlook? What intangibles (especially in terms of emotions) are also necessary for such an expedition?
4. What aspects of humanity were represented by the various personalities in the group, ranging from exploitive Father Zahm and the rational Cherrie to the volatile Julio? Can such varied people coexist? How did you react to Roosevelt’s belief that it was necessary for Julio to be found and shot after he murdered one of the team members?
5. Do any contemporary American politicians possess Roosevelt’s public-speaking style? Why did he believe it was important to debate the former Chilean ambassador and deliver speeches refuting the protestors there?
6. Discuss the extraordinary medical history included in The River of Doubt. How was Roosevelt able to survive so much in his lifetime–from gunshot and disease to a train wreck–with only rudimentary medical care? What aspects of modern medicine would have made his expedition safer? Would safer conditions have undermined the thrill?
7. What did you discover about the intricate, sometimes surreal ecology and geography of the Rain Forest itself? What is the significance of the ancient history of South America’s formation, such as the plate tectonics that sculpted the Andes Mountains? What was it like to read descriptions of a region where few humans have adapted to the environment? Why is it important to preserve rather than develop these ecosystems?
8. In the end, what do you believe Roosevelt’s true missions were in this expedition? What was revealed about the nature of some geographic explorers when his success was met with deep skepticism? What motivates any explorer–from ancient nomads to NASA scientists? What separates Roosevelt’s brand of adventurousness from that of contestants on television shows such as “Survivor”?
9. Share your observations about the Cinta Larga, ranging from nutrition and family life to warfare. Does their self-sufficiency make them noble?
10. What did you discover about Roosevelt’s parenting style? Is his approach–particularly his insistence that his children learn to conquer rather than avoid obstacles–prevalent in many American schools today?
11. Do you believe that Kermit’s later despondency, which eventually drove him to suicide, was related more to genetics or to his life’s circumstances? Did his father expect too much of him? How did their relationship shift throughout this father-son expedition? How would you have fared on a similar mission with your mother or father?
12. How might Roosevelt respond to current concerns about the environment and climate change? How might he and his Progressive “Bull Moose” Party have fared in recent elections?
13. What separates The River of Doubt from other presidential narratives you have read? What writing techniques enabled the author to weave together science, travelogue, and history? What do the Notes and Acknowledgments sections reveal about her research techniques? If someone were to write a biography of you, what narratives could be constructed from your collection of letters and other memorabilia?
14. Discuss the historical context of Roosevelt’s trip, in terms not only of South American history but other aspects of world history from this time period, such as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912? Would World War I have unfolded differently if Roosevelt had defeated Wilson?
15. How were the first chapters of Roosevelt’s life, which were marked by poor health, resolved by this final South American chapter? Do his triumphs of endurance, from boxing at Harvard to valiant service during the Spanish-American War, form a timeline of progressively more dangerous challenges throughout his life? If so, did he finally meet his match with The River of Doubt? Why do you believe this expedition was, until now, less well known than his other triumphs?