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April 15, 2024

The Lost City of Z: Book Review

By Lydia Manx

David Grann's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon is soon to be a movie. I didn't realize that when I started the book. As I read it in the company lunchroom, I kept having folks ask me about the novel. I explained that it was a biography about Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British surveyor, who literally put the Amazon Basin on the map. He and his crew spent months at a time exploring and mapping the regions in Brazil in the early 1900s for the Royal Geographic Society. In 1925, funded by the newly-started London financial group The Glove, and others, he and his son took off, trying to find the ancient lost city rumored to be in the Brazilian jungle. The skeptics thought he was misguided by an unattainable illusion and hounded him both in print and in person.

Fawcett, however, was certain that the Amazon contained a fabulous kingdom, and he was not another soldier of fortune or a crackpot. A man of science, he spent years gathering evidence to prove his case -- digging up artifacts, studying petroglyphs, and interviewing tribes. And after fierce battles with skeptics, Fawcett had received funding from the most respected scientific institutions, including the Royal Geographic Society, the American Geographic Society, and the museum of the American Indian.

David Grann takes the time to go through Percy Harrison Fawcett's life and disappearance. He inserts himself into the story of the missing explorer by retracing the locations that Fawcett had gone and mapped. He gives the background that built the self-proclaimed colonel his reputation and the reasons for his ultimate expedition with his son, which ended in mystery.

How easily the Amazon can deceive.

It begins as barely a rivulet, this, the mightiest river in the world, mightier than the Nile and the Ganges, mightier than the Mississippi and all the rivers in China. Over eighteen thousand feet high in the Andes, amid snow and clouds, it emerges through a rocky seam -- a trickle of crystal water. Here it is indistinguishable from so many other streams coursing through the Andes, some cascading down the western face toward the Pacific, sixty miles away, others, like this one, rolling down the eastern facade on a seemingly impossible journey toward the Atlantic Ocean -- a distance farther than New York City to Paris. At this altitude, the air is too cold for jungle or many predators. And yet it is in this place that the Amazon is born, nourished by melting snows and rains, and pulled by gravity over cliffs.

The reader is pulled into the jungle, visualizing the distances sketched by Grann's words. There is the excitement of new discoveries and unknown tribes explored with each of Fawcett's trips that are documented and detailed. The sense of Indiana Jones just the crack of a whip away lurks in the pages. The author also details how Fawcett didn't tolerate anyone he perceived as weak or not as strong as he was. He abandoned one man along the trail with little sympathy or much compassion. When men signed on to be a part of his crew, they literally took their lives and gave them to Fawcett.

Murray accused Fawcett of all by trying to murder him, and was incensed that Fawcett had insinuated that he was a coward. Keltie informed Fawcett, "I understand that there is a possibility that the matter may be put into the hands of a well known solicitor. James Murray has got powerful and wealthy friends behind him." Fawcett insisted, "Everything that could humanely speaking be done for him was done ... Strictly speaking, he owed his condition to unsanitary habits, insatiability for food, and excessive partiality for strong liquor -- all of which are suicidal in such places." Fawcett added, "I have little sympathy with him. He knew to a detail what he would have to put up with and that on such journeys of a pioneering character, illness and accidents cannot be allowed to jeopardize the safety of the party."

Fawcett goes on to say more about how unsuitable Murray was and it was a matter of protecting those in the party. The feud between the two men faded into history and Murray later went back to the Arctic environment where he'd established his reputation before nearly dying in the Amazon. The ship he was on became embedded in the ice and abandoned. Then Murray helped lead a mutiny against the captain. The captain was able to rescue his party, but Murray and his companions were never seen again.

David Grann ends up following briefly in Fawcett's long erased footsteps as he sketches out the possible endings that came to the explorer and his son. He journeys into the jungle with guides and hints of Fawcett's fate, while recognizing how unforgiving the jungle truly could be even today, with all the modern devices to fuel an expedition. Fawcett had decided that the Amazon Basin held a mystery in her past of a culture far different than the small tribes and cannibals he'd met in his forays into the past. Fawcett's disappearance resulted in disappearances and deaths of least a hundred others, who followed trying to find the man and solve the mystery. There isn't a final ending for the Lost City of Z. The author gives various opinions, but at the same time he recognizes how quickly the Amazon can absorb a village and explorers. He was shown the shape of walls where once native tribes had lived, moats around the land, and all of it overgrown by the plants and no longer on maps. With all of what Grann finds, the picture of the challenges facing even a modern traveler gives the reader a sense of wonder that so many men ever walked out of the jungle. Nevertheless, Fawcett and his son remain lost in the shadows along with the rest of their party.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-01-02
1 Reader Comments
08:53:29 AM
Fab review, great excerpts from the book, let's us know it's not dry non-fiction - not surprised it will be made into a film.
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