Review: The River of Doubt

***CONTENT WARNING: This book, and therefore this review, includes discussion of depression and suicidal ideation.***

I first tried to read Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005) while sitting on the cold, hard tile of a powerless and darkened interior bathroom, the glow of my Kindle app the only light in the room, my young son sleeping in a pillow-filled tub beside me, as my husband and I waited for the hurricane-force winds (that weren’t supposed to reach us) to die down outside and for daybreak to show us what might remain of our home.

A week earlier, we had buried my father after a decade-long deteriorating condition that, for all its years of forewarning, left me no less shattered and shook.

A week later, having survived the service and the storm but not the successive heartaches, I would tell my family that my insistence that we continue with our long-planned, multi-week, road trip West – leaving in just a few days’ time – was not some attempt to tempt fate or beat my chest against the winds. I just needed a break.

It was a lie.

I don’t think I realized that at the time. But returning to the book this month for #NonfictionNovember and reading about Roosevelt’s “Darkest Hour,” I strongly identified with his desire to run headlong from a resounding defeat into an adventurous challenge that would test every bit of his mettle, in an effort to beat back the disappointment and despair.

Although my own trip West included still-more tragedy, ending abruptly due to illness before we had reached the first of our most-anticipated destinations, our journey wasn’t nearly as harrowing as Roosevelt’s.


“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.”


This book captures everything I want in a nonfiction read – and does it exceedingly well. The River of Doubt is equal parts informative and engaging, with all the hallmarks of fiction – characterization, dialogue, pacing, plot – well deployed, but also deeply researched and intricately layered in both theme and context.

Millard drops a ton of information on the evolutionary history of South America and its inhabitants – flora, fauna, and human – throughout the book, but she layers it into the story piece-by-piece in ways that effectively add to the tension and pacing. The further Roosevelt and his team get into their expedition, the more Millard shares about their environs – what they see but don’t notice, what they believe but don’t know, what they hear but can’t identify, what they dread but can’t anticipate – and the more increasingly alarmed we become.

Overall, the book is as thrilling a ride as the river itself.

It does, however, also hit a few rocky spots.

Specifically, the narrative treatment of depression as a weakness at a few points in the book marred what was otherwise, for me, a near-perfect read. In some ways, this perspective is a throwback to Roosevelt’s boyhood, when he was described as incredibly frail and struggling with asthma and his father told him, “Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.”

Roosevelt did make his body, and he never again allowed it to grow weak or idle. On the contrary, what began as drudgery soon became a compulsion. Throughout his adult life, Roosevelt would relish physical exertion, and he would use it not just as a way to keep his body fit and his mind sharp but as his most effective weapon against depression and despair.

While these passages are crucial to understanding what motivated Roosevelt, time and time again, to run headlong into a brutal challenge rather than wallow in defeat, this “bootstrap mentality” bleeds beyond Roosevelt’s own perspective, into Millard’s descriptions of other people’s depressive episodes as well. For example, here’s one such passage (stripped of specifics so as not to be a spoiler): “Had [he] been a stronger man, the sorrow and shame surrounding [the incident] might have turned his life around. But he was not, and it did not.” In addition, while one suicidal moment is treated as weakness, another is hailed as heroism – “not about suicide, [but] about doing the right thing.”

In a book so thoroughly researched, it was disappointing to see this particular aspect treated so cavalierly.

Overall, however, I did really enjoy The River of Doubt and would, with the above warnings, still recommend it.

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