The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

by Candice Millard
432 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

A dark, interesting book, but very heavy on Evolution.


After losing the presidential election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt, though not as fit as he once was, accepted an offer to make a tour of South America and travel one of the known tributaries of the Amazon River. Instead he, his son Kermit, and a small band of men take it upon themselves to descend the Rio da Duvida - the uncharted River of Doubt.


Millard recounts the history of the party's perilous descent without passing much judgment on their moral actions. At one point Kermit disobeys an order and ends up getting another man drowned, for which he seems to show little remorse in his journal. One man is a lazy coward and is rightly despised for it. The party abandons a murderer to the rainforest because of their inability to transport him to civilization for a trial. Millard explores Roosevelt's successes and failures as a father, pointing out that he seldom disciplined his children, but was also overbearing in other areas.

Rondon, the man who leads the expedition, refuses to let his men kill Indians - even if they are attacked first and without provocation. This pacifist philosophy results in the deaths of many of his men.

Spiritual Content

The authoress, an editor for the National Geographic, makes her Evolutionary beliefs known in nearly every chapter. She frequently talks about how the rainforest is millions of years old and how the creatures evolved certain traits to protect themselves.

God is mentioned a few times in the men's journals, but they were all worldly, self-sufficient men.


The piranhas of the Amazon can devour humans, and the results of snake bites are gruesomely described. The cannibalistic tendencies of some tribes of Amazonian Indians are described in detail. The volatile temperaments of certain tribes is also mentioned, and Millard talks about the almost constant intertribal warfare. Rondon refuses to allow his men to protect themselves against Indians, resulting in many casualties.

One man is shot through the heart and others drown in rapids and whirlpools. A story is related of a man's throat being cut by some Indians. Roosevelt intends at one point to take his own life, and is only stopped by the realization that his son would attempt to carry his body out. In the Epilogue, Millard recounts Kermit's own suicide years later.

The men face dangers of wild animals, starvation, and Indian attacks, and so the book is hardly a light and cheery one. The violence is generally gruesome.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Kermit and Cherrie, the naturalist, drink whisky to cheer themselves. The fact that Theodore's brother descended into a life of alcoholism is mentioned, as is the fact that Kermit later went the same route.

Sexual Content

Theodore's brother had numerous affairs, and in the Epilogue, in which Millard talks about the similarities between Kermit and his uncle, she mentions that Kermit also became a womanizer. She also talks about (in some detail) how the Indians of the rainforest wear practically nothing.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Millard talks about a kind of fish that gets inside people and of the procedures necessary to remove them. The revolting smells of some Amazonian plants are described.


"The River of Doubt" is an interesting look into the character of Theodore Roosevelt and a time of his life not often explored. Millard describes both the men of the expedition and the territory they covered in great detail, creating a vivid and terrifying picture of what the Amazon Rainforest was like at that time. It is a relatively simple read, but not simplistic. However, the tendency to talk more about the supposed evolution of the rainforest than the expedition itself was a little tiresome.

Fun Score: 3.5
Values Score: 2.5
Written for Age: adult

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