Roosevelt's Beast by Louis Bayard is a historical reimagining of a torturous 1914 scientific expedition to the Amazon, in which Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit are kidnapped by an unknown tribe who demand they hunt a mysterious and horrible beast (available March 18, 2014).
One hundred years ago, in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, embarked on an exploration of the Rio da Dúvida – the River of Doubt. Already separated from family, infected with disease, and lost in a land with no maps, the two men are ripped violently away from their company by an unfamiliar Amazonian tribe— the Cinta Larga.
Trapped, with only twelve cartridges between them, Kermit and his father must hunt down a mythical beast or they may never return to civilization again. Joined by two of the Cinta Larga tribe, Luz and Thiago, they venture into the jungle. Too soon, they realize the beast may be the least of their worries—if it exists at all.
In Roosevelt’s Beast, historical mystery master Louis Bayard, weaves a classical tale of psychological horror. Is the monster real? Is it only in Kermit’s head? Bayard’s story may seem somewhat familiar to those who have read Candice Millard’s River of Doubt, an incredibly researched non-fiction book, which presents the historical details of this particular adventure. But Bayard has left the known edges of the map, and created a strange, fantastic tale of survival, family, and monsters.
The story opens with the men of the Roosevelt expedition already under Nature’s merciless attack. The river buffets them. The sun burns them. The rains pour over them. They are tired, hungry, feverish, and aren’t sure how much farther they have to go. Despite the exotic location, Bayard introduces his characters in situation universal to all humans: surrounded by mosquitoes.
The camarada crawled back out. For another minute or two, Kermit lay in his cot – already half sopping, for the morning breezes were blowing the rain straight in. With his fingers, he interrogated the sores on each of his legs: all the garden-variety bruises that, through infection, had acquired ideas above their station. Then he mapped the scorch marks of last night’s mosquitoes – a cluster on the elbow, another on the ankle, a necklace around the collarbone. There was one particularly prominent ridge above his right eyebrow, as if a whole regiment of mosquitoes had stayed through the night, feasting.
Mosquitoes, however, aren’t the only beasties in this jungle. Monsters of the mind rear their ugly heads very shortly. After a canoe accident in which one of their men was lost, Kermit is weighed down by the heaviness of his father’s presence, his longing for his far-off fiancée, and the guilt that one bad decision meant the death of a man.
They rest at the confluence of two rivers: the Rio da Dúvida and the newly christened Rio Kermit (named for the intrepid explorer himself), when Kermit and his father follow the siren cry of a spider monkey into the jungle. Too late, they realize they are not the only two legged creatures in the trees and they are kidnapped, separated from their team. The two men are drugged and laid on the Amazon jungle floor, paralyzed. There they are confronted by something neither one has seen before.
The chief clapped his hands – twice, lightly. Then the tribal circle broke open to admit the bowed figure of Luz. in the light of day, with her softly freckled shoulders and pink nipples, she looked even further removed from the Cinta Larga.
“Senhor Kermit. I am to tell you what has happened.”
“We know what happened.”
“No. Before you came.”
And the two words that followed were somehow more evocative for being in Portugeuse.
The Colonel required no translation. “Beast, she says?”
“Please,” she said. “You shall listen.”
At first they try to use their Western knowledge to explain their observations. Really, this is only natural, considering these men have traveled around the world. One of them served as President of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt is the consummate adventurer. So, the good Colonel—as T. Roosevelt is now known—naturally applies his life’s knowledge to the task at hand.
“Well, my boy,” said the Colonel. “I am happy to report – or it may be I am ashamed to report – that my time as police commissioner left me with a strong predilection for crime scenes and what may be gleaned therefrom. To wit,” he continued, with an upward thrust of finger, “we have a crime. We have a victim. Now, what else may we say with any degree of certainty?”
However, Theodore Roosevelt’s life experiences prove to be woefully short in helping. Animals and humans are being eviscerated. Jaguars’ innards are scooped out and apparently eaten. Now the Roosevelts are heading into the Amazon, armed with only twelve cartridges and feverish dreams, to confront this dangerous creature known to the Cinta Larga as Curupira, a demon who guards the forest from men.
Though, when they enter the forest, the greatest beasts they face may just be themselves.
Roosevelt’s Beast is a lovely, horrific exploration of an exotic place and time. Bayard’s language is engaging, so it’s easy to turn the pages. The suspense is palpable in some spots and the descriptions of violence effective. Then there’s the added bonus that Kermit is a sympathetic character, struggling in a strange country in the shadow of one of the strongest personalities in history. Bayard manages to balance Theodore Roosevelt’s huge influence, which could easily dominate the novel, with a humanity that goes beyond the general suffering of injured legs and fevers. This is a gripping novelization of an intriguing point in history.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.