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A former president takes a 'Journey'

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In these times of political and social turmoil, it seems many Americans are heading off to bookstores in search of biographies of presidents past who have led with greatness.

What first seemed like an outbreak of "Founding Father fever" with the multitude of books about John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson has now turned into a virtual presidential pandemic. Witness the explosion of new titles about Lincoln.

A compelling and original new book now joins the biographical gang: Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.

Millard is not an academic specializing in history. Rather, she worked as a writer and editor at National Geographic magazine.

Because of this background, she writes most knowledgeably not about politics but about the natural world and about Roosevelt's ill-fated 1913 expedition to the uncharted Brazilian Amazon, where the former president and his group came close to death.

Millard captures the terrifying biological diversity of the Amazon and the Stone Age tribes who inhabited the shores of this then-unexplored tributary. (It was later named for Roosevelt.)

The former president was accompanied by his son Kermit, a group of American scientists and a famous Brazilian military figure, Candido Rondon.

Rondon, of mixed Indian and European blood, is a towering figure in Brazilian history. He was famous for his unusual compassion for the Indian tribes and his pacifist beliefs. (His motto: "Die if need be, but kill never.")

In a series of exhausting and dangerous expeditions, Rondon mapped much of his nation's vast interior.

Millard points out that at the turn of the 19th century, less was known about South America than any other inhabited continent -- including Africa, where Roosevelt and his son had traveled.

The River of Doubt can be seen as a bookend to another outstanding title about Roosevelt, David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback (1981).

That book described the president's sickly childhood, idealistic nature and complicated relationships with his family.

The values of his childhood all come full circle in this new, dramatic tale of Amazon exploration -- a tale in which Roosevelt displays his lifelong passion for nature, for physical exertion, for bravery, for stoicism and for eschewing privilege.

Millard presents a balanced book. For example, Kermit Roosevelt disobeys the orders of the Brazilian Rondon and gets a man killed. One of the Americans expected to be carried about like a pasha.

It is impossible not to admire Roosevelt's lifelong curiosity about the natural world, his ebullience when facing disaster, his love for his son and his egalitarian treatment of others.

This is a bully good adventure tale about a great man.

*Read an excerpt from River of Doubt at

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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