Written by D.F. Karppi Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Caroline Millard was a great crowd pleaser as shown by the crowd of readers that filled the Matinecock Lodge downstairs dining room the evening of April 8. The book was chosen by Long Island Reads as its choice for a cooperative book event. The local event, North Shore Reads was co-sponsored this year by the Sea Cliff, Bayville, Bryant (Roslyn), Glen Cove, Gold Coast, Locust Valley, and Oyster Bay libraries that brought together readers who were instant friends – drawn together in their enthusiasm over the book.
OB-EN Public Library head of reference Dorothy Moore said, “We had to buy more books. We started with 14 or 15 and had to buy more.” She said she didn’t get to read it yet, because of the great demand, but that Stacy Hammond, OBEN Library program director listened to the book on tape. Ms. Moore said a lot of people did say there was too much description to read at one time. At the Matinecock Lodge a man commented that he couldn’t read the book before dinner or before bedtime – there were details about the difficulties of living in a jungle alive with crawling insects, man-eating fish, and natives with poisoned darts.
Another commented, “It was less of a page turner, but I enjoyed the details.” “You needed the details to understand the challenges,” said another. Most felt they added to the reader’s appreciation of the real difficulties the explorers faced.
Master of Ceremonies for the evening, John Canning greeted guests saying, “What a marvelous time to be here. The art of reading lives and is alive and well in Oyster Bay. It is nice to see so many literary people in one room.” He told some amusing stories that had everyone laughing like: “I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband on her sixth wedding night. I know what to do but how to make it interesting?” He said because he had hosted the last event for Long Island Reads at the Bryant Library in Roslyn.
He introduced the librarians who were present including Genellen McGrath of the Gold Coast Library that chaired the event; Stacy Hammond, the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Library program director; and Janis Shoen, Locust Valley Library director, among others.
He said each table had a list of questions to discuss and then gave everyone 30 minutes to answer them.
At this reporter’s table, one woman said she hadn’t read the book as yet, but found an Internet site on YouTube that had a film of the trip showing all the portages on the River of Doubt.
Another reader commented that in the book Mornings on Horseback the author talked about TR’s early trip to Africa with his family. They had folding campaign furniture – they were not roughing it. He was “to the manor born.” “This trip was nothing like that,” she added, commenting that TR seemed to spend the rest of his life in response to his recovering from his childhood illness.
Author Millard said TR brought about eight pairs of glasses on the trip. He always carried spares since he was afraid of losing or breaking them. “He had only a 13-foot field of vision, something that his father discovered at Sagamore Hill when he couldn’t shoot a gun,” commented James Foote, TR impersonator, as he stopped by the table.
The book had mentioned that because of the humidity in the jungle, TR’s glasses were fogged over and he couldn’t see. Despite that he walked into the jungle with his gun, trying to shoot game for the explorers and their workers. He didn’t shoot anything. Kermit Roosevelt did however successfully shoot several animals to feed the men. They had originally thought it was going to be easy to supplement their rations with fresh caught fish, and found fruit and nuts, and game but that was not the case in the Amazonian forest where survival of the flora and fauna depended on a tight schedule of reproduction timing systems.
The tablemates just had a moment to ask each other another of the questions on the list - if they thought TR would have taken his “killing dose of morphine” if things had proceeded differently and everyone agreed he would have.
That was when Mr. Canning took over the event. “Oh the buzzing of literary discussion at all of our tables this evening,” he said as he brought everyone together for a group discussion.
Someone commented that going on the South American trip was typical of TR after losing the election with his Bull Moose Party. “It was Teddy’s way of handling emotion. And, it kept him in the public eye although at the end people didn’t believe his reports of the trip.”
The trip/book has several major characters: Roosevelt; TR’s 30-year-old son Kermit; the American naturalist George Cherrie, and the expedition’s Brazilian commander Colonel Candido Rondon.
The consensus was that the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition prospered from having two leaders, TR and the expedition’s Brazilian commander Colonel Candido Rondon - they complemented each other’s skills. An interesting discussion took place over the fate of the Indian Julio, who stole food from the company and shot the man who discovered his theft. When he found the company again - after leaving them and being on his own in the jungle for several days – the question was about the different reactions of the leaders. TR wanted to shoot the murderer using the law of the wilderness and Rondon wanted to bring the indigenous Indian to the Brazilian authorities for trial.
Jim Foote, TR impersonator shared some insights about the 26th President. He said when TR was organizing his African trip with Kermit, he spent four years planning it. For this trip, he left the planning in others hands. Mr. Foote said, “One of his faults was he was not a good judge of character.” His choice of Father Zahm was a good example of that.
Mr. Foote mentioned an incident where TR washed Dr. Cherrie’s underwear saying, “I feel I have to be of some use to the expedition,” even though he was ill. “He was not a prima donna,” said Mr. Foote.
He said another time TR showed his mettle when one of the men was murdered. Although TR was sick and near death, he came back to life and took part in the hunt to find the murderer.
Mr. Foote said Tweed Roosevelt re-did the voyage down the River of Doubt, in about 1999. He said the river had not changed an iota. Mr. Foote said when TR was criticized for the trip that shortened his life, his answer was, “I had to go. It was my last chance to be a boy.”
People commented on the fact that there were so many journals of the trip kept by the explorers and that while they got rid of excess baggage, the books were kept. Mr. Foote said, “They were small.” He added that while TR was on his African Safari, every three days his writings were brought to civilization by runners so they could be published.
Mr. Foote added that TR attended Kermit and Belle’s wedding in Spain and met an aide to the King of Spain and they were cordial to him, despite his fighting in the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898.
He said, years later naturalist Dr. George Cherrie said, “You had to hate the colonel a whole lot not to love him.”
They were good words to end the evening with and the next portion was the winning of raffle tickets. There were many sets of raffle tickets to hear Caroline Millard speak at the Plainview- Old Bethpage Library on April 13. Someone won a Teddy Bear in a basket. Several people won copies of the River of Doubt by Ms. Millard, including two who received the book in hard cover. The entire adventure of reading the book and joining with other readers for the discussion was a special treat. The depth and breadth of Theodore Roosevelt made everything all that more interesting.