The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

     Among my requirements for books about hardship travel are that the details lost-city1are gruesome and the travelers encounter all sorts of unpleasantness.  I read these books for the adventure but also to reinforce my contention that the best non-luxury travel is done in the comfort of an armchair.  The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazonby David Grann was a great find, not only for the vivid descriptions of hunger, disease, parasites, rapacious insects, dangerous animals, and hostile natives, but also for the history of a fascinating larger-than-life individual.


     Percy Harrison Fawcett was an explorer in the early 20th century.  He was an officer in the British army but his heart was in the wilds.   He was trained in cartography, scientific observation, and expedition fundamentals at the Royal Geographical Society in London.  His first foray into the Amazon was as a member of a team sent to map the borders between Bolivia and Brazil.  More Amazon explorations followed, some for specific purposes and others just out of curiosity.  Fawcett was blessed with an iron constitution that allowed him to perform feats in the Amazon rain forests far beyond anything ordinary mortals and beasts could do.  A companion on several trips realized that his purpose was to slow Fawcett down enough so that others in the party could keep up.


     Fawcett became obsessed with finding El Dorado, a fabulous city referred to by the early Spanish conquistadors.  Fawcett called it the lost city of Z.  He read everything he could find on the topic and planned to be the person who finally found the prize.  Unfortunately World War I intervened and he was in his fifties before he could pursue his dream.  By that time the world wanted to support only anthropologists, linguists and other specialists in such endeavors.  Fawcett – basically a trained and experienced amateur – had trouble securing funding.  He finally was able to mount an expedition that began in late 1924.  His companions were his son Jack and Jack’s friend, Raleigh Rimell.  They descended into the rain forest and at first were able to send out accounts of their exploits.  After June of 1925 they were never seen or heard from again.


     The fate of the Fawcetts became one of the great mysteries of the 1920s and for many years following.  Government officials and others who had access to Fawcett’s papers were besieged by requests for information from “saviors” who intended to rescue Fawcett or at least find out what happened to him.  These saviors became known at Fawcett freaks.


     Author David Grann became a latter-day Fawcett freak.  He entered the Amazon for the story and with the advantages of the 21st century.  He was able to track down and interview some of the few remaining people who actually had contact with Fawcett.  In addition, he was given access by one of Fawcett’s granddaughters to papers and information no other Fawcett freak had seen.  The result of Grann’s research, both scholarly and physical, is a fantastic book.  He alternates chapters about Fawcett with ones about his own experiences.  Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has produced a cracking tale that reads like thriller fiction.  It is very satisfying book for history buffs, students of the Amazon, anyone who likes a good story, and for me.  As I mentioned above, there is no hardship I can’t endure – vicariously.       


     If you enjoy The Lost City of Z, you may also want to read The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, The Lost Lady of the Amazon:  The Story of Isabela Godin and Her Epic Journey by Anthony Smith, and Lost in the Amazon by Stephen Kirkpatrick.


(Sherrie Antonowicz, Administration)


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