At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth.
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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is a former writer and editor for National Geographic magazine. She lives in Kansas City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 ...
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