The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s daunting and deadly exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth. The book recounts the last great physical challenge that Roosevelt posed for himself in the Amazon rain forest. Author Candice Millard, a former writer and editor at National Geographic who resides in Kansas City, conducted field research in the Amazon to retrace portions of Roosevelt’s journey.
The River of Doubt is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and intrepid Brazilian explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, set forth into a territory filled with Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows, waters filled with piranhas, and rapids strewn with crushing boulders. Several men died on the expedition and Roosevelt nearly committed suicide.
Millard’s nonfiction book debut, released in hardcover and paperback in multiple printings, was nominated for the 2006 Quills Award in the History/Current Events/Politics category. Her forthcoming book, titled The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President, will be released on September 20, 2011.
Millard set aside time to discuss The River of Doubt.
Pete Dulin: One of the remarkable aspects of The River of Doubt is the intensity and variety of male relationships among the explorers. No modern example comes to mind where a group of powerful, determined men collaborated on a treacherous, arduous journey with a far- reaching goal in mind. Today’s male icons tend to be singular figures as portrayed in media that succeed or fail based on their own merits––Lance Armstrong, Bill Gates, Bono, baseball player Jason Giambi, author James Frey, Tom Cruise. So let’s examine some of the bonds between the explorers in your tale. How would you characterize the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit?
Millard: Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt were extremely close. I think that it is fair to say that Roosevelt loved all of his children (he had six––four boys and two girls) deeply and equally, but it would be difficult to deny that he had a special connection to Kermit. It was Kermit whom he took to Africa with him, pulling him out of Harvard to spend a year hunting and collecting in this beautiful, far-flung place. It was Kermit to whom he confided the extent of his disappointment after losing the election of 1912. A n d it was Kermit whom he took with him into the Amazon. Kermit had never intended to go on this expedition. He was in love, and newly engaged to a beautiful young woman who was living in Spain. But he went because he was devoted to his father, and because he felt that his father needed him. In many ways, Kermit was the real hero of this expedition. Although his later life would be filled with difficulties and disappointments, for these months on the River of Doubt, Kermit embodied everything his father admired. He was the man they both believed he could be.
Dulin: Did that relationship strengthen, falter, or grow complex in other ways over the course of the journey?
Millard: The relationship between these two men was irrevocably changed during this journey. Kermit became a man in the eyes of his father. Roosevelt was extremely proud of his son’s courage, skill, and willingness to work as hard as any of the porters and paddlers, and harder than most. In fact, Kermit spent so much time in the river, guiding the dugout canoes or trying to free them when they became trapped, that his shoes literally rotted off his feet. When Roosevelt decided that he was too ill to go on and it was necessary for him to take his own life so as not to endanger the rest of the men in the expedition, Kermit, for the first time, refused to obey his father’s wishes. He was not about to leave his father to certain death in the rain forest, and Roosevelt finally realized that the best way to save his son was to let his son save him.
Dulin: Similarly, how would you describe the relationship between Roosevelt and Rondon, men who seemingly put their public personas aside to accomplish a greater goal?
Millard: Roosevelt and Rondon developed a deep respect for each other while on this river––a respect that would last throughout their lives––but they certainly did not always agree. For Roosevelt, this expedition was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a real explorer, to contribute something of significance to science. For Rondon, the descent of the River of Doubt was simply one part of a much greater mission to explore and map the Brazilian interior and to make contact with its most isolated tribes. Death was simply part of the job––something that he regretted but had come to expect––and he certainly was not willing to lower his standards to save the life of any man. As the expedition progressed and the men began to realize that they were in grave danger––from illness, Indian attack, and starvation––Roosevelt insisted that they abandon Rondon’s detailed and time-consuming method of surveying the river so that they could move more quickly. Rondon, however, was not about to rush through the rain forest. He had come here to chart the river, and he was going to do it exactly right, whatever the consequences.
Dulin: As a former president, how did Roosevelt conduct himself among other men that were not necessarily his peers on this trip?
Millard: Roosevelt refused to accept any privileges that Rondon did not also receive. In his eyes, and––at his insistence––in the eyes of all the men in the party, they were equals in every way. As revealing, I think, was his relationship with the camaradas, the Brazilian porters and paddlers. Roosevelt knew them as individuals, not as faceless, nameless workers. He admired their skill and work ethic, and he did his best to encourage them through the darkest hours of the expedition. He gave them chocolates and told them stories. When he was too sick to work, he even tried to give them his own rations. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word––a man who not only inspired his men but genuinely cared about them.
Dulin: Kermit exhibits formidable physical and mental strength, much in the mold of his father, throughout the trip. Why did he fall apart in after the journey when back in the States?
Millard: It’s difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of someone as complex as Kermit, but I think that it is fair to say that a type of melancholy ran through the Roosevelt family. Theodore Roosevelt himself suffered from it, but he had a system for dealing with loss or disappointment or setback. He turned to hard adventure as a type of therapy. Kermit was very much like his father in some ways––his wanderlust, his love of learning––but I don’t think he was as a resilient or as pragmatic. Kermit was a romantic. His sister Ethel used to say that he had the heart of a poet. And I think that, perhaps, when life did not play out the way he had expected it to, when his wife was not the woman he had fashioned in his dreams, when his subsequent jobs were not as exciting or adventurous as his early life had been, then he began to unravel a little. His father’s death was also very hard on him. He wrote to his mother that the bottom had dropped out for him, and I think that that’s true. In many ways, Roosevelt had been his second son’s moral compass, and his death was a tremendous loss to Kermit.
Dulin: Kermit also coped with the pangs of long-distance love. How did Kermit’s relationship with Belle, his wife to be, affect him during the expedition and afterward?
Millard: I think that, to a large degree, Kermit and Belle had overly romanticized images of each other. But that’s to be expected. They were very young, and they had not really had an opportunity to get to know each other well before Kermit left for South America. For Kermit, Belle was this beautiful, almost unreachable girl, and when he wrote to her, he poured out his heart. Belle was more practical and much more interested in the high-society world to which she had been born. So I think that, as it is with any young couple, marriage was a big adjustment. And then Kermit began drinking, having affairs, and even disappearing for long periods of time with his mistress. As difficult as this was for Belle, she stuck by him. She seemed to never stop loving him.
Dulin: Rondon’s achievements went beyond the Roosevelt expedition. His prior expedition involved scouting a path through Brazil’s uncharted interior and building a telegraph line over 800 miles. Besides that significant accomplishment, Rondon also established relationships with numerous Amazon Indian tribes. Was there a lasting impact to this effort?
Millard: Yes, before this expedition, in 1901, Rondon had helped found Brazil’s first Indian protection agency. He was also its first director, and he worked extremely hard to make contact with the Amazon’s indigenous inhabitants and to protect them. He has since been criticized by some anthropologists for giving the tribesmen jobs and clothing, for trying to assimilate them into Brazilian society, but he certainly did more for Amazonian Indians than any other white man of his day. His agency, now known as FUNAI, still exists, and most of the tribes now legally own the land that falls within their territory.
Dulin: The River of Doubt involves a cast of intriguing, well-developed characters, but also reads as an informative, action-filled adventure. As a writer, what was your approach to portraying each individual adequately while moving the narrative along?
Millard: I’m a real believer in outlines. I know they’re not exciting, but I think they’re essential, at least with non-fiction. If you don’t know where you’re headed, neither will your reader. I also did little mini bios for each of the central characters. I wanted to try to understand who these men were and why they would make the decisions that they did.
Dulin: What character do you feel was most underrated and undeveloped in this book that people should know more about?
Millard: There’s a lot more to be said about Rondon. He published an autobiography many years ago, with a journalist friend of his, and two years ago Todd A. Diacon published a book called Stringing Together a Nation, which gives genuine insight into not just the Strategic Telegraph Commission, which Rondon led, but also into Rondon himself. But I still think that this man, indisputably one of the world’s greatest explorers and perhaps the finest and most effective advocate for Brazil’s indigenous people, deserves a full-scale biography. When it’s published, I will be the first in line to read it.
Dulin: When researching this book, you had a harrowing experience in a plane. What happened?
Millard: We had been flying over the river, which is still in one of the most remote parts of the Amazon, for a couple of minutes when the single engine cut out. We just dropped like a stone. I had heard that it was possible to restart an engine in flight, but I had certainly never seen it happen, and I’m not sure how my pilot was able to do it because his hands were shaking so badly. But, when we were at about 1500 feet, he finally did get it restarted, and we slowly pulled back up. We were fine, but it was a jarring experience. We were so deep in the Amazon at that point that, had we managed to survive a crash, I don’t think anyone would have been able to help us.
Dulin: You also gathered an impressive amount of detailed information while researching and worked with knowledgeable experts in Brazil; from National Geographic; and Doug Stotz, ornithologist at the Chicago Field Museum, for instance. Would you tell us more about those working relationships and experiences?
Millard: While I was at National Geographic, I was always impressed by the amount of time that scientists and other experts would donate to the magazine. Out on my own, I wondered if they would do the same for me. The answer was, absolutely. I was astounded by the generosity of these men and women, experts in their fields. I could not have written the book without them, and I will always owe them a great debt of gratitude.
Dulin: Would you share any stories or research about George Cherrie that you uncovered and left out of the book? He seems like a fascinating person in his own right.
Millard: You’re right. He was an absolutely fascinating person, and, I believe, extremely deserving of a biography. One of the aspects of his life that impressed me, and which I didn’t have an opportunity to write about in the book, was his relationship with his wife, Stella. Around their farm in Vermont, she was known as Pistol Packing Stella because she used to carry a pistol with her to shoot snakes. She gave birth to one of their children on the banks of the Orinoco River. Afterwards, the family had to keep changing campsites, and finally take to the river in a canoe, because they were being stalked by a jaguar that was drawn to the baby’s cries. As time went by and their family grew larger, however, Stella could not go with her husband on his expeditions, and, unfortunately, the two eventually divorced. When I learned that, from their grandson, Hue Cherrie, I was crushed. I had just loved the idea of these two tough, intrepid people living together into old age.
Dulin: Please describe your encounters with the Amazon natives.
Millard: While the rainforest surrounding the River of Doubt was in the middle of nowhere to Roosevelt and his men, it was home to the Cinta Larga, and it was important to me too, to the extent that I could tell the story from their perspective as well. I found a group of Cinta Larga in a little town called Cacoal, which is not far from the river. Brazil’s Indian protection agency, FUNAI, has set up a medical outpost there, and many of the Cinta Larga come in from the rain forest to get medical care. This expedition has become part of their tribal history, and they have very specific memories of it. It was an extraordinary honor for me to interview them and to listen to their stories, not just about this expedition, but also about their own customs and beliefs.
Originally published in Present Magazine.com. Author photograph by Isaac Alongi.