BOOKS: River of the Gods: Candice Millard

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Jun. 4—Candice Millard is an adventure historian — meaning she researches and writes mostly about adventures from history.

In "River of Doubt," Millard wrote about Theodore Roosevelt's post-presidential trip to chart a tributary of the Amazon River — a trip that the 50-plus-year-old Roosevelt saw as his last chance to be a boy but nearly killed him and left him an old man.

"Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President" isn't so much an adventure but the chronicle of the assassination of President James Garfield and not just the shot that struck him but the botched medical procedures that likely killed him.

In "Hero of the Empire," Millard looks at the capture and daring escape from the enemy by young Winston Churchill during the Boer War in South Africa.

In all three of her earliest books, Millard focuses full attention on relatively well-known incidents that are often only a few pages, or just a chapter, in biographies and history books.

In her latest, Millard continues with adventure history but relates a much lesser known story for most readers.

"River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile" explores the complicated relationship between 19th century explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke as they work together to find the source of the Nile then work apart as one betrays the other in taking credit for finding their objective.

Burton was a daring-do, intellectual, multi-lingual, free-thinking explorer who delved into the practices of most religions without being devoted to any religion — an infidel, he snuck into Mecca, for example, in disguise — a story that opens the book. He had the courage to explore, the devotion to research that allowed him to pull off his self-appointed missions and the ability to write well and fast to share his adventures in multiple books and articles. He could slide into the skin of others without losing himself.

Speke was thin-skinned, easily insulted, resolute in grabbing fame and glory no matter the cost, was inarticulate in writing his thoughts and experiences but believed himself right in most instances. He served subordinate positions on two expeditions with Burton and found fault with almost every action taken by his commander.

But through the crucible of their long journeys — attacks, injuries, disease, illness, etc., they developed a bond tending one another and looking out for one another ... though one remained dismissive and the other harbored deep resentments.

"River of the Gods" is an intriguing story. It's a welcome return of Candice Millard for readers who regularly follow her adventure histories that read like novels and a book that stands on its own for anyone unfamiliar with her work but is ready to explore.