When you hear “history book,” do you turn and run? Are these books the last on your reading list? Is your perception of learning history colored by memorization and repetition often utilized in schools? What if reading history could be every bit as exciting as fiction?
It can be.
There are some masters of narrative history out there writing the true stories that will compel you to turn every page. One of these authors is Candice Millard. Her books on two of the most influential and compelling leaders of the 20th Century — Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt — are gripping reads.
In Hero of the Empire, Millard takes us into Churchill’s early days: Before the War, before Prime Minister, before politics. He is rightly remembered for unfaltering leadership in Britain’s stand against Nazi Germany. That leadership was forged across continents and in far-flug wars decades before the Battle of Britain.
Born into wealth, and seeking to make his name known, he would serve in the Boer War in Africa. War, prisoner, escapee on the run, manhunt — this is all a very different image of Churchill than we are used to. He was always driven and self-assured, but now that would be forged and refined by fire. Churchill wasn’t just another politician pretender. He had been there himself.
In The River of Doubt, we have a very similar individual: Theodore Roosevelt. His early years and background were much like Churchill’s, but Millard picks up his life after he was President. He had attempted an independent run for president a few years after he left office, and lost. It was one of his few failures. This was someone who been into battle, taken on political and business corruption, and even gave a campaign speech only a few hours after a would-be assassin lodged a bullet in his chest.
The election defeat and been a blow to him, but he was never one to bury his head and give up. He looked for the greatest challenge he could find: An expedition into the Amazon. One of the deadliest places in the world, the jungle almost became his final resting place.
The tale of his adventure is a dark one where they endured “starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning…murder…,” death and “Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide.” The jungle itself is a character in this story, its beauty and lurking dangers lucidly painted by Millard. Against that background, we are witness to the character and history of one our celebrated leaders.
Roosevelt once wrote, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Churchill added to this, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Indeed, where have such leaders gone?