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The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas Hardcover – December 30, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

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 Dari‚n 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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From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (October 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609609890
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609609897
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #388,191 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
An engrossing adventure story that describes the ultimate jungle trek gone bad. Authentic details starkly convey the expedition's desperate ordeal as they attempt to discover the shortest route between two oceans in Panama in the 1850's. I found the epilogue a satisfying wrap-up to the story as author Todd Balf details his own experiences 150 years later - almost as grueling without the tragedy. Another aspect of the book that I found fascinating was the first hand inforamtion on the Damien rain forest - one of the last unexplored regions on the planet.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Brian D. Rubendall HALL OF FAME on January 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Author Todd Balf's "The Darkest Jungle" comes along as the latest in a glut of recent books about historical expeditions that came to grief because they were ill-equiped, poorly led, misguided, or some combination of the three. The United States' Darien Expedition of 1854, led by earnest Naval Lieutenant Issac Strain fell squarely into the last category. Misled by erroneous maps drawn by previous charlatan explorers, the Darien Expedition set off across the Panamanian ismuth in seach of a viable ship canal route and became hopelessly lost. Six men of the party starved to death, and most of the rest would have followed suit but for a heoric rescue effort led by Strain himself.
"The Darkest Jungle" is a well written book that tells the story of the Strain party with a minimum of hyperbole. Particularly gruesome are Balf's depictions of the ravaging effects that starvation and parasites had on the members of the party. As an added bonus, in the last chapter Balf briefly describes his own travels in the expedition's footsteps.
The story of the Darien party isn't an epic, like that of the Scott party in Anarctica for example, but it still makes for enjoyable reading for anybody who likes real-life adventure tales.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on April 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This catchy little history book shows us how deceptively brutal the Panamanian isthmus can really be. Of course, long before the actual Panama Canal was completed, the region had been obsessed over by all types of explorers and speculators wanting to create the ultimate shortcut for world travel. This book focuses on the 1854 exploratory mission of Isaac Strain and his men, in search of a possible route for a canal in the Darien region of the isthmus, which ultimately was not selected for the canal. While Panama may appear to be just a skinny little strip of land, it is actually up to 100 miles across with steep mountains, punishing weather, the worst tropical diseases and insects, rivers that go in all the wrong directions, and the most impenetrable jungles on Earth. Here Balf documents the harrowing ordeal of Strain and his men, as the team ultimately discovered that the Darien region was definitely not suitable for a canal, losing several men along the way under gruesome conditions of starvation and suffering. Some parts of this book are quite terrifying as guys start dropping dead in the worst possible ways.
This mostly fascinating vignette is held back a little by Balf's rather thin and wandering writing style, as the characters (particularly Strain) fail to really come to life. Meanwhile, there are two different stories about the rescue of the nearly-dead Strain and his associates after months of being lost in the festering jungle. In the sensationalistic introduction, meant to draw the reader in, Strain is near death when rescued but dramatically fights his way back to lucidity. But later, in the actual historical account, he was certainly in ill-health but still competently commanding his men.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Bert Ruiz on September 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The 1850's was known as the "canal era," in U.S. history. "Commerce was King," and President Franklin Pierce was an agressive expansionist who viewed the nation's borders expanding to Cuba and beyond. Moreover, Pierce was no less determined to be the first country to find a canal route on the Isthmus of Panama. At the time, the traditional sailing from east to west was around Cape Horn, "one of the most storm-ravaged passages in seafaring," and a four-month voyage to boot. A Darien Canal would cut the tough trip to California in half.

To this end, Todd Balf's "The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas," is a stirring tale of the 27-member exploring group and its dashing leader, Lieutenant Isaac Strain. The author (also an accomplished researcher) explains how the search across the Panama Isthmus was an old idea. In 1503, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and final voyage carefully combed the Panama coast for the isthums but grew disgusted and abandoned the search. In 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first European to see the Pacific from a peak on the Darian but did not successfully negotiate a passage.

Consequently, the January 19, 1854 U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition was an ambitious undertaking filled with great risk. There was also trememdous economic considerations involved, with both the United Kingdom and France having declared intentions to march into the Darian with their own joint expedition in early 1854. Fortunately, Lieutanent Strain's instincts were outstanding and the quality of the American survival skills were impressive. Nevertheless, it was a painful and deadly race into the jungle.

Strain's leadership was crucial...
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