Edward Dolnick's Down the Great Unknown
depicts the "last epic journey on American soil," John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Grand Canyon and the fulminating, carnivorous Colorado River. The book, a model of precision, clarity, and serene passion, outshines, arguably, its bestselling brother-volume, Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage
On May 24, 1869, Powell, an ambitious, autocratic, one-armed Civil War veteran and amateur scientist, and a casually recruited crew of nine--without a lick of white water experience--embarked from an obscure railroad stop in the Wyoming Territory to travel through a region "scarcely better known than Atlantis." Ninety-nine days, 1,000 miles and nearly 500 rapids later, six of the men came ashore in Arizona--the first humans to run the waters of the Grand Canyon. Dolnick tells this story of courage, naiveté, hardship, and petty squabbling simply and authoritatively using entries from the men's journals, deft overviews (we always know where we are), and short science, history, and psychology lessons, as well as the prodigious knowledge of present-day river runners and his own first-hand observations. His prose carries the day: Powell looks like a "stick of beef jerky adorned with whiskers," the boats are "walnut shells," which in rapids are little better than "ladybugs caught in a hose's blast" or "drunks trying to negotiate a revolving door," while the river is a "taunting bully," a "colossal mugger," a "sumo wrestler smothering a kitten," and a notable rock formation looks like what might happen if "Edward Gorey had designed the Bat Cave."
Down the Great Unknown brushes against perfection. This is history written as it should be--and too rarely is: enthusiastic, rigorous, painterly, gloriously free of both pedantry and hyperbole. --H. O'Billovitch
From Publishers Weekly
owell led his band of stalwart trappers and ex-soldiers down the Green River in Wyoming Territory, heading for the last bit of terra incognita in the U.S.: the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. The expedition had plenty of supplies, but the wrong type of boats for shooting rapids. Moreover, their inexperience with rapids cost them one of the boats and many provisions. There was little game to supplement their rapidly dwindling food supply. And being the first to chart the river, they didn't know what lay beyond each twist. These handicaps, along with deadly river rocks, soaring canyon walls and one-armed Powell's impressive feat of scaling them to measure their height, make for a remarkable journey. Unfortunately, Dolnick does the story a disservice in overwriting the expedition's slower moments. He frequently overexplains, and he never meets a simile he doesn't like. Every description, no matter how effective, is carried too far, suggesting Dolnick doesn't trust his story or his readers: "rapids... do not murmur. They rumble. They roar. They crash. The sound evokes a thunderstorm just overhead, a jet skimming the ground, a runaway train.... The message is worse than the sound itself the roar of a rapid is a proclamation of danger as clear as a giant's bellowed curse in a fairy tale." After passages like that, readers may want to jump ship, or like Powell's band, they can struggle through and emerge battered but illuminated. Photos and illus. (Oct. 2)Forecast: Will a 15-city NPR campaign, six-city author tour and big-time advertising help the story trump the writing? Yes. The adventure is that good.
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