Book Review – The River of Doubt

Book review:

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

I recently completed the book The River of Doubt by Candice Millard – the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition to descend and map an unknown river in the Amazon in 1914. I had never heard of it, but happened across it when I was browsing the “expedition” section at my local library.

Candice Millard is a former writer and editor for National Geographic, and you can tell when you read this book. She puts a lot of time into researching not only the individuals on the journey, but she also takes the time to give you a good sense of context for the book, so you understand the social and political implications of the events as they unfold.

She also spends a lot of time describing the jungle ecosystem that the team is traveling through, an environment where as she puts it the “men were more often prey than predator”.

The most fascinating thing I found when I read this book is that it is the opposite of the story I expected. Teddy Roosevelt is such a legend that it is almost unthinkable to portray him in anything less than heroic terms. And he is such a huge figure that anyone next to him automatically is in his shadow.

Yet in the book, Millard candidly talks about the personal issues that Roosevelt was facing and how that resulted in an expedition that was a textbook example of “how NOT to plan and execute an expedition”. Three men died on the trip, and it is sheer luck that they didn’t all die. Also interesting is how she portrays Colonel Candido Rondon, the Brazilian co-leader of the expedition, as the true driving force on the trip.

Many of us enjoy reading about epic adventures and famous historical expeditions as a way of learning about the world, and also for inspiration, and to learn best-practices for expedition preparation. Usually the men we read about who lead these expeditions have 20/20 foresight, always make the best decisions, and are prepared for anything they will encounter. This expedition is not like that.

In fact, I think I learned more from this book than many of the expedition-themed books I have read in the past, because it reads like one of those Harvard Business School case studies I had to read in college, you know the ones, they show you how a company was ill-prepared for the situation they found themselves in, and then made a series of bad decisions, which made the situation worse. You are supposed to learn from these case studies and not make the same mistakes in your own business. If you apply the same logic to this book, you can learn a lot about how NOT to plan and lead an expedition.

And throughout the book, you also get a good sense for the people involved. Roosevelt’s resolve and good character is very evident throughout. Some of the other members of the expedition do not come across so favorably.

So to sum up: Was it a riveting page turner? No.

Would I recommend it to anyone thinking of planning and executing an expedition into unknown (to them) territory? Absolutely!