Candice Millard

The River of Doubt

  • This summary of The River of Doubt includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The River of Doubt Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The River of Doubt by Candice Millard.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005) by Candice Millard is a historical account about the 26th President of the U.S., Teddy Roosevelt (1858 – 1919), exploring a giant, unknown river in central-west Brazil. The biography, Millard’s debut, was praised for its detailed description of a journey often ignored by historians, as well as its seamless prose that read like a novel. Millard is a former writer for National Geographic.

Its themes include courage, resilience, and adventure. The narrative is told in the third person, with primary sources determining the major plotlines.

The River of Doubt opens in Manhattan, where Roosevelt is hosting a reception for his Progressive Party, an independent party he founded as a third choice between Democrats and Republicans. It’s the city’s hottest ticket, and Millard details why: Roosevelt, who preaches self-sufficiency and chasing the American Dream, is an extremely charismatic figure.

He ends up losing the election of 1912, as predicted, but comes in second; his appearance, however, split the Republican vote, thus helping Democrat Woodrow Wilson win by a wide majority. Consequently, Roosevelt becomes a hated figure within the Republican community, a first for the habitually popular man. While he is unsurprised that he isn’t the ultimate victor, Roosevelt had expected even more people to vote for him.

Roosevelt remains one of America’s most adventurous spirits. Whenever he experienced a crushing loss, he would push himself to go on a trip. As part of a speaking tour, Roosevelt travels to South America in 1913. He is joined by his loyal son, Kermit. His trip is paid for by the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan; little did the grantors know that Roosevelt would travel far from their agreed-upon path.

Cândido (Colonel) Mariano da Silva Rondon, his Brazilian head of security and one of the country’s finest adventurers, follows Roosevelt. Rondon is admired throughout Latin America but doesn’t have an entirely faultless repetition: many men have died while travelling with the man who liked to push extremes, and Randon routinely had to pay assistants seven times the usual fee. Roosevelt, now a plumb man of 55, doesn’t seem like he will last long in the wilderness.

Roosevelt instantly takes up Rondon’s offer to leave the well-known trail and go explore the Amazon. After Rondon mentions the Rio da Dúvida (the River of Doubt) in passing, Roosevelt’s ears pique up; always drawn to danger, Roosevelt is eager to chart this so-called “River of Doubt.” He is unphased to hear that it is nearly one thousand miles long. He ignores Kermit’s point that the Natural History Museum is sending him on a genteel tour of Brazil, not for an in-depth expedition.

The journey’s success isn’t helped by two men that Roosevelt employed to plan their expedition, Reverend John Zahm and Anthony Fiala: both men fail to properly supply the expedition. Fiala loaded the expedition with many gourmet items rather than a healthy supply of meat, which was more necessary for survival further on the trip. Zahm proves to be insulting toward the assisting Brazilians who help the trip move forward. Roosevelt ends up dismissing both before the expedition is over.

Still, the expedition proves useful. Rondon helps lay down telegraph wires through the uncharted territory. However, it takes more than two months of walking and riding boats through Brazil before the team, about 20 men, even make it to Rio de Dúvida.

They encounter piranhas, jaguars, vipers, and anacondas. There is also the persistent danger of contracting malaria or being shot with an arrow by an indigenous tribe. Because of Fiala and Zahm’s inept planning, the expedition has to abandon several boats as they are too heavy to carry across land.

One night, the expedition is on a boat. Because of the canopy of trees above them, the moon doesn’t reflect light into the river so it appears “black” to the explorers. When one of their boats becomes detached from the main boat, Roosevelt jumps into the black river to keep the other boat from leaving. During the rescue, Roosevelt is bitten; the bite turns into an infection.

Now diseased, Roosevelt is prepared to take the vial of poison he packed away just for this occasion. But Kermit refuses to let his father die; he insists that the next group of villagers they find will be willing to help them. Ultimately, it is Colonel Rondon who ensures the survival of everyone. Along with navigating through the dangerous terrain, Rondon has the good cultural sense to leave gifts for local indigenous tribes (particularly the Cinta Larga) so they wouldn’t attack the expedition. Roosevelt, even in the direst circumstances, remains positive and a general morale booster. Still, the group becomes afraid that Roosevelt won’t make it out of the River of Doubt.

After nearly a year of wandering and fighting for survival, Roosevelt does survive the River of Doubt. However, he has lost ¾ of his original body weight. Passerbys think he looks like a corpse; he was so sick that he couldn’t even sit upright in a canoe. While he would recover, the author writes his body was never entirely the same. Roosevelt would die in 1919 at the age of 60.

Rondon remains a popular figure in Brazil. He is largely credited with connecting the rural and indigenous populations of Western Brazil with the more cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Brazil.