cover image Magdalena: River of Dreams

Magdalena: River of Dreams

Wade Davis. Knopf, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-375-41099-4

Davis (One River), an anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia, travels the length of Colombia’s Rio Magdalena through wildly varied geographies and a past of horrific massacres, in this ardent travelogue. He visits the river’s mountainous source, where ancient native communities thrived before conquistadors exterminated them; surveys villages annihilated by a 1984 volcanic eruption that killed 25,000 people; recalls the thousands killed during drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s 1980s reign of terror in Medellín, and the city’s rebirth as an urban-planning showcase; recounts the ordeal of farm towns trapped in the recent civil war between murderous left-wing guerrillas and even more murderous right-wing death squads; and basks in placid fishing communities in the river’s delta (site of an attack by another right-wing death squad). Along the way he views the country’s lush flora and fauna—and heartbreaking environmental damage wrought by humans—through the writings of 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, the book’s presiding spirit, and delivers a romantic profile of revolutionary hero Simón Bolivar, a liberator turned dictator turned bitter old man. Davis stocks his lively narrative with piquant characters, dramatic historical set pieces, and lyrical nature writing (“The mouth of the Rio Magdalena is the color of the earth”). The result is a rich, fascinating study of how nature and a people shape each other. (Sept.)