J. KEMPER CAMPBELL
“River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile” by Candice Millard, Doubleday, 349 pages, $32.50.
Candice Millard’s latest book, “River of the Gods,” is set to become an early nominee for next year’s One Book-One Lincoln selection. Millard’s previous book, “Heroes of Empire,” received a favorable review in this space on November 7, 2016, and resides in this reviewer’s personal library alongside his other two books, “The River of Doubt” and “Destiny of the Republic.” Indeed, this reviewer has waited almost six years for this book, like a child on Christmas Eve. It was not a disappointment.
Millard’s strength as a nonfiction writer is in reviving long-dead historical figures and making them as familiar to the reader as those featured in the evening news.
His earlier books featured prominent subjects, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and James Garfield, and a young Winston Churchill. This book chooses two British explorers, Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, who are almost unknown to American audiences today. The couple were mid-19th century adventurers who were instrumental in exploring central Africa to discover the source of the world’s longest river, the Nile.
People also read…
Their intertwined story is about saving their lives on their first gruesome journeys between 1856 and 1859. By the end of their lives, petty jealousies had caused them to become virtual strangers. How their ultimate triumph led to disaffection and despair is the tragic story at the center of the book.
The brilliant Burton, who could speak 25 different languages, is now best known as the translator of the One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra. The monument marking Speke’s grave is largely ignored by the public.
In addition to his skill in character portrayal, Millard’s experience as a writer for National Geographic magazine allows him to graphically document the hardships endured by these men in the pre-antibiotic era.
Burton was paralyzed and delirious for months during the arduous trek through uncharted jungles. A spear driven into his cheek and palate left him with a permanent disfiguring facial scar. Speke was rendered partially blind and deaf for the rest of his life by the ordeal.
This book, like his others, is extremely researched and documented with compelling insights into each man’s character. Moral strengths, faults and prejudices are revealed in both men. Burton’s beloved wife, Isabel, exemplifies the frustrations felt by women in Victorian society. Deserved credit is given to Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a freed slave from East Africa who played an invaluable role in the three expeditions to the huge inland lake that turned out to be the source of the White Nile.
An eight-page insert including maps and photos of all the main characters adds to the story. For more on this topic, Tim Jeal’s “Stanley” and Levison Wood’s “Walking the Nile”, re-watched in this space April 4, 2016, give a modern update to this still perilous region.
In summary, any reader interested in African exploration or the tenacity and endurance of those pioneers who managed to fill in the gaps on the maps of our physical world will enjoy this book.
J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who must now wait for author Millard’s next project.