The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

2005. New York: Anchor Books (an imprint of Random house). 353 pages.

Features: Extensive notes and bibliography, thorough index, fascinating historical photos

Genres: Biography, historic narrative, nonfiction

Ages: Adult, but suitable for many young adult readers


This book has been called a “thriller” by some reviewers, and indeed at times, it is all but impossible to believe that what one is reading is historic nonfiction–and not the invention of a talented screenwriter. To say this would make a riveting film is an understatement. The book centers on a daring adventure concocted by Theodore Roosevelt in the wake of his crushing election defeat in 1912. Though he had many loyal followers and could very likely have resumed a successful political career in years to come, Roosevelt felt a compelling need to hurl himself headlong into the most dangerous and daunting physical challenge he could find: descending an unmapped tributary of the Amazon, a menacing, blackwater river alive with rapids, piranhas, impossibly large human-eating pythons, malaria-carrying insects, and more. His cadre of roughly a dozen explorers plus some native helpers included his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous (at that time), experienced, and courageous explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.  Surrounded by an almost unimaginably vast and completely unforgiving jungle wilderness, this intrepid group faced starvation, disease, infection, murder within their own ranks, and attack by cannibals. With almost nothing to eat, their energy drained, they hacked their way through jungle growth so thick it nearly halted their movement, braved rapids more like waterfalls, bathed in waters filled with creatures that could kill them on the spot, and dreamed of the foods they would eat once they return to civilization. They had no choice. There was no turning back–for once in, the trip home was fully as treacherous as the one that lay ahead. A handful of them would survive–but none of them would ever again be the same. 

The book is simultaneously a page turner, a portrait of a man driven to test his courage (and that of his son) by pushing himself to the brink of death. This is not a typical presidential biography. There are no golf courses, no posed pictures with the family dog, no Airforce One. This is the story of what a man can do when he has absolutely nothing to depend on except raw will and fate. In the opening chapter, titled “Defeat,” Millard quotes Roosevelt as saying, “If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not the great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now” (p. 18). This is the unforgettable story of a man who made his own opportunity to demonstrate his greatness.  

If you are currently focusing on the Common Core Standards for informational writing, you will find this book an invaluable resource. It is filled with highly readable passages that reveal both the depth of Millard’s research and the excellence of her fluent style: “There are electric fishes that eat nothing but the tails of other electric fish, which can regenerate their appendages, thus ensuring the predator a limitless food supply. Other fish have evolved to eatprey that live outside of their own immediate ecosystem. The three-foot-long arawana, for example, has a huge mouth and a bony tongue and can leap twice its body length. Nicknamed the ‘water monkey,’ it snatches large insects, reptiles, and even small birds from the low branches of overhanging trees” (p. 160). You will find countless passages like this one that you can share aloud or discuss with students, even without sharing the whole book. Expect to be enthralled, disturbed, alarmed, fascinated, and hungry for more. Nearly every page provokes questions and rich discussion. This is a book that will engage students–and challenge them at the same time. Readers have opportunities to learn about Roosevelt the person and the president, as well as about the vast Amazon wilderness and its virtually infinite variety of life.

Questions for Discussion

 1. What is Roosevelt like? Is this the Roosevelt you expected?

2. What do you think of Roosevelt’s decision to chart a previously unmapped river? Do you know anyone who would make a similar decision under similar circumstances? Would you?

3. Roosevelt wants his son Kermit to accompany him on this expedition. Do you think this shows high respect for Kermit’s skills and courage–or a blatant disregard for his son’s safety? What evidence do we have of one or the other?

4. Given the dangers that the Roosevelt party faced, how would you have calculated the odds of their survival at the beginning of the expedition? Do those odds change with time? What evidence do we have?

5. What things did you learn from this book that surprised you?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of this writer’s research? What evidence do you have to support your rating?

7. Usually we expect to see presidents in the White House or Congress, being presidential: making speeches, calling for legislation, voicing positions. This is a very different sort of biography. What do we learn about Roosevelt that we might not learn seeing him in a more “presidential” context?

8. Is there a point in the story where it is hard to believe anyone from the expedition will survive? When does this occur?

9. Should this book be made into a film? If so, where should it be filmed? Who should play the part of Roosevelt? Which specific episodes from the story should be included?

10. What makes a person take on a challenge such as the one Roosevelt faced? Do you imagine yourself doing something similar at any point in your life? Why or why not?

Note . . .

The River of Doubt was recommended by a friend and colleague, Fred Wolff.  Fred is an independent writing consultant, who specializes in dynamic six trait and writing process workshops, as well as classroom demonstrations in which he works with students while teachers have a chance to observe. He and his co-author Lynna Garber Kalna (The Write Direction, 2010, Pearson Education) are currently developing a brand new workshop based on the Common Core Standards, which they hope to debut this spring. We will be sharing more information about that workshop here at Gurus once it is available. One of the many things that makes Fred so exceptionally good at his job is his impressive knowledge of literature–and his knack for sharing the “just-right” passage to illustrate detail, voice, word choice, fluency, and other features of successful writing. I always consider myself fortunate to have a friend whose book recommendations I can trust; Fred is one of those friends. Thanks for sharing this book with us, Fred–and best wishes on that Common Core workshop! If you’re interested in booking a workshop, you can contact Fred at

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next week we will review Swirl by Swirl, a gloriously poetic nonfiction book by Joyce Sidman. And in the near future, we’ll be delighted to feature Sneed Collard’s brand new book, Lizards.  Fans of Sneed’s nonfiction writing have been waiting for this one.