THE DARKEST JUNGLE: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas

Todd Balf, Author . Crown $24.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-609-60989-7

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 Darién 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 . (Jan.)

Forecast: Ads in Harper's and the New Yorker, along with author interviews and a national radio campaign, will help illuminate The Darkest Jungle for readers. Balf writes for Men's Journal and is a former Outside editor, which could help him get coverage.

Reviewed on: 11/10/2003
Release date: 12/01/2003
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