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Monday, November 17, 2008

BPL Book Discussion: River of Doubt

This month my book group tackled The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. This New York Times notable book follows Roosevelt after his failed bid for a third term as President. To take his mind off of his political failures, Roosevelt accepted a speaking tour of South America in 1913. Roosevelt's son Kermit was already on the continent, and the chance to see the Amazon River was just what the ex-President and famous outdoors man needed to get over his defeat.

However, the planning for the trip was shoddy and once in Brazil, Roosevelt changed the group's plans. Instead of traveling down a well mapped river, Roosevelt and his team decided to explore "The River of Doubt," a completely uncharted 1,000 mile tributary of the Amazon. As you can imagine from this set-up, things do not go well. The group loses boats in the rapids, 3 men die, food stores all but run out, and Roosevelt himself barely survives the trip. As you can see, The River of Doubt is not your run-of-the-mill Presidential narrative.

On to our discussion: All but 2 people loved the book. The two who felt so-so about it commented on the unrelenting suffering and the descriptions of all of the terrible things the group went though. One commented that she felt their pain too intensely. I did remind her that if it were fiction, we could say the author was laying it on too thick, but she was not because this was real!!

Others loved it because of the suffering. One participants comments that she was in awe of their adventurous spirit and all they went through. She was astounded.

Everyone agreed that Millard's writing style was excellent. One member mentioned how much she liked the "slice of life" narrative device. Too many times, she explained, great people's lives are "shoe-horned" into a book; here, she enjoyed how much we learned about Roosevelt through this one event in his life. The shorter time frame allowed for more depth into the character of the man himself.

Since Millard used a lot of diaries and first person accounts, this nonfiction book had a lot of well rounded characters. We got insight into Roosevelt and his crew as men, not just as famous people.

We also talked about how much we learned about the ecology, evolution, and topography of Brazil and the rain forest. One participant read a few facts out loud, such as that the mouth of the Amazon is so large, there is an island in it, almost as big as Switzerland!

We also spent some time discussing the indigenous population and what it means to be "civilized." Who is more civilized, the modern explorers or those who had lived in the rain forest for thousands of years?

We ended our discussion by talking about survival. I asked the group what would you do in a situation like Roosevelt's where you literally were fighting to survive in a hostile and unknown environment with not hope of rescue. People talked about how they thought they would react. Each had something slightly different to say, but overall, we decided that your real self comes out in those situations. We also thought that at some point you would have to confront death and come to terms with its inevitability. We also talked about how Rondon's adherence to a schedule and his strict regimentation saved them all. You had no choice but to go forward with Rondon in the lead. You may be upset, uncomfortable, unwell, and dejected, but you just kept moving toward your goal.

As you can see, we enjoyed the discussion and loved that the book allowed for so many different paths of exploration. This also leads to many readalike possibilities. One of the participants mentioned that this book reminded her of when we read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Another brought up our discussion of Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende. I would add to this list, 2 other narrative nonfiction titles of people persevering through tough times although not in the Brazilian rain forest, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dustbowl by Timothy Egan and Mayflower: A Story of Courage Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. Finally, other famous explorers were mentioned in this work, one of which was Ernest Shackleton. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is one of the best accounts of his Antarctic exploration.

There is an extensive bibliography in the back of The River of Doubt to turn to for reading about this adventure specifically, but I would like to point out Roosevelt's own account of his trip, Through the Brazilian Wilderness which is still available at many public libraries. If you want to learn more about Roosevelt, I would also suggest trying Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris or Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough.

In terms of fiction, there are many ways to go. I mentioned Ines of My Soul above, but there is also Kathy's suggestion of Fordlandia by Edwardo Sguiglia which is a fictionalization of Henry Ford's attempt to have his own rubber plantation in the Amazon. Another patron also mentioned thinking of the Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear books when reading this.

Obviously there is lots to draw on here. Enjoy.

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