The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

After a humiliating election defeat in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt was looking for a getaway. A trip to South America that began as a tour of Brazil soon turned into a dangerous and nearly fatal exploration of the Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt.

NW graduate Candice Millard documents this journey in her first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. The novel has gone on to become a New York Times Best Seller and the winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award, an honor given to Kansas and Missouri writers to get their work out to more readers.

Photo by Sarah Dean

In Candice Millard’s debut novel, TR and his crew face many challenges as they make their way down the tributary, not knowing what’s ahead or where they will end up. This story actually made history interesting to me, which is not an easy feat.

Millard’s research is apparent throughout the novel. She goes in-depth with her background information, and her integration of quotes from sources like Roosevelt’s actual journal and one of his son’s letter to his love back home is masterful. It makes me wonder how she got a hold of these quotes. It must have taken immense research, which is a major skill for a nonfiction writer to have in order to stand out in her field.

In an article she wrote for the Washington Post about her writing, she said she wanted to focus the novel more on “Roosevelt’s accomplishments than his struggles.”

“Over the years I had spent writing The River of Doubt, Roosevelt’s story had taught me that no life is immune to tragedy,” Millard said. “Each time , he had responded by fighting back, throwing himself into extreme physical challenges that tested his strength and his courage and helped him forget.”

This rings true in the novel. Millard tells the story of how Roosevelt came to be the strong man that many know him as. Even though I didn’t really know much about TR before reading this novel, it gave me a different perspective on the former president and the many things that he accomplished in his lifetime. It made me respect his bravery, strength and courage, which I hadn’t even known about before opening The River of Doubt.

Millard’s writing style was questionable at times however. Run-on sentences and confusing phrases and clauses plagued the novel. I found myself reading and rereading sentences over and over again to figure out what was going on with the structure. This is one of the only things that bothered me in the book.

All in all, The River of Doubtis about as unpredictable as the river itself. You never really know how everything is going to turn out, and the way that Millard uses cliffhangers at the end of every chapter leaves the reader in the unknown, unable to see what’s in the future for the expedition’s party.

Author Candice Millard — Photo Courtesy of Washington Post

Millard’s goal of showing the trials and tribulations of our nation’s former presidents (her second novel, Destiny of the Republic, documents the assassination of former president James Garfield) is accomplished easily in The River of Doubt. She speaks of this goal in the Washington Postarticle (link below), relating some of the inspiration to moments in her own life.

“If uncovering the truth is the greatest challenge of nonfiction writing, it is also the greatest reward,” Millard said. “As I have encountered difficult moments in my own life, I have been privileged to learn from the great men I have come to know as a writer.”