Title: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Genre: narrative nonfiction
The rest of the post is basically a huge summary of the book so it could be considered to be spoilry, although I must admit that I am not sure if it is even possible to spoil for nonfiction…
This book was so cool! It tells the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the last great Victorian explorers. The book follows him from his military days in Ceylon forward. Bored with his career, he decided to become an explorer in 1900. He joins the Royal Geographical Society and after completing a year long ‘explorer’ course he becomes one of the Society’s official explorers. He starts by trekking through the Amazon and mapping the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil which until then had never been explored or mapped. Fawcett was one of the last ‘traditional’ explorers: he hacked through the jungle on foot with only a few men. During his early days he and his men almost starved to death. Attacked by flies, hiking in swamps, worms burrowing under their skin, contracting malaria or yellow fever, and wary of attacks by Indians, some of his men died. But not Fawcett; he seemed to thrive under adverse conditions, often making his men march 17 miles per day through the jungle.
Partly based of his own experience and partly based off accounts he read of the conquistadors’ early accounts of traveling in the Amazon, Fawcett becomes convinced that there was once a great ancient civilization that flourished in the jungle. Temples, gold, jewels, and kings, it was a civilization comparable to the Aztecs and the Incas. And in the middle of it all was a vast city that he called ‘Z.’ Convinced that he had found the location of the lost city he was eager to set out, only to be delayed by the start of World War I. For 5 years he stayed at the front as a Lt. Colonel and he participated in the Battle of the Somme. But when the war was over he had trouble raising funds. Scientists didn’t believe that such a civilization could exist in the Amazon; the fact that Fawcett had started to dabble in spiritualism and occultism and believed that psychics telling him that he was right was credible evidence did not help his case.
In 1925, at the age of 57 he, his 21 year old son Jacks, and Jacks best friend finally stepped into the jungle to find Z. They were never heard from again. Over the following decades many rescue parties were mounted, some of them to never be seen again. It is estimated that about 100 have died trying to find traces of Fawcett’s trail. David Grann, the author, also goes into the Amazon to try to discover what happened to the 3 men.
I don’t think that we’ll ever for sure know exactly what happened to them, although it seems likely that they were either killed by Indians or else died of malaria or some other sickness. But the amazing thing is that Fawcett was actually right about Z. It may not have been a civilization like the Incas or the Mayas but new discoveries have recently been made in the Amazon. Ancient pottery shards by the thousands have been found, as has evidence of large settlements supporting 1,000s of people. These towns were surrounded by moats and palisades and were connected to each other by 250 wide roads constructed on an E-W axis. There was even an astrological tower made out of 10ft tall stones weighing tons. All this, combined with the the new discovery that people in the Amazon fertilized the land with burned charcoal and human waste, has led scientists to believe that before disease drastically reduced the native population there could have been up to a million people living in the Amazon.
I really liked this book. Fawcett was a complex character who I enjoyed reading about. Grann really did a good job explaining just how terrible the conditions were in the Amazon for these men and the troubles they faced. I also appreciated how he told about how the natives were affected by the expansion of the frontier and the rubber boon and mining operations that were operated in the area. This book is narrative nonfiction so it is easy to read and it does a great job of creating atmosphere, from Victorian London to the depths of the Amazon. This book was just so interesting, especially the part about how there was a ‘Z’ out in the Amazon, although not in the form that Fawcett predicted. I hadn’t heard about any of the recent discoveries made so I was surprised in that regard. I wish there had been a bit more information about the discoveries rather then it just all being included in the last chapter. But that’s about my only complaint. When I started to read this book I wasn’t sure what to expect but my apprehension was more then worth it. I really enjoyed it. It came very close to getting 5 carrots.
Reading this has made me want to read a book that I checked out of the library over winter break but never got around to reading. Its called The Unconquered by Scott Wallace and its about the uncontacted Indian tribes that still live in the Amazon interior. I just checked and they have it at my university library so I think I will be reading it soon. But not quite yet; I have been reading a lot on nonfiction lately and I think its time to take a detour into the land of make believe. I’m thinking of reading His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik next; its a book about the Napoleonic wars except that there are dragons! I’ve heard good things about it so I’m hoping for the best.