From Publishers Weekly
In 1854, Isaac Strain, an ambitious young U.S. Navy lieutenant, launched an expedition hoping to find a definitive route for a canal across the isthmus of Panama. For hundreds of years, the Darin isthmus had defied explorers; its unmapped wilderness contained some of the world's most torturous jungle. Yet Strain was confident he could complete the crossing. He was wrong. He and his men quickly lost their way and stumbled into ruin. Balf (The Last River) vibrantly recounts their journey, a disaster on a par with the Donner party or the sinking of the whale ship Essex. Using logs kept by Strain and his lieutenants, as well as other period sources, Balf follows the party from their first missteps (their landing boat capsized in roiling surf) to their near-miraculous rescue two months later. Strain and his crew endured exhaustion, heat, starvation and infestations of botfly maggots, which grew under the skin and fattened on human tissue. The men were forced to make heartbreaking life-and-death decisions; e.g., voting to leave behind sick companions who couldn't keep up with the rest (one shrieked after them as they trudged deeper into the jungle). Some men surrendered to despair; two of them quietly conspired to commit cannibalism. Balf has written a compelling, tragic story, reviving an adventure overshadowed, 60 years later, by the successful completion of the canal. Balf reminds readers that, like the transcontinental railroad farther to the north, the channel was "built on the bones of dead men." Illus., maps not seen by PW.
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The 1854 U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, led by navy lieutenant Isaac Strain, was seeking a ship-canal route that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The men suffered from disease, exhaustion, deadly insects, starvation, despair, and failure. Despite a two-year search by Balf, author of The Last River, he was never able to find the journals and notebooks kept by the group's 29 members. The journal entries appeared in only one place, an account written by the then best-selling historian Joel Tyler Headley. His story appeared over three successive editions of the 1855 Harper's New Monthly, the most thought-provoking periodical of the day. The men had overcome unimaginable obstacles when they emerged from the rain forest after five months; six members of the expedition had died. Balf's colorful account of the venture is compelling reading. George Cohen
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