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Review: The Lost City of Z, David Grann

Explorers throughout the ages have been convinced that a huge city lies within the Amazon rainforest.  Descriptions written by the first conquistadors only backed them up, and many men set out to find it only to lose their lives in the process.  One such determined explorer was Percy Fawcett, who took his son and his son’s best friend into the jungle.  Convinced he knew where the city was, he eagerly set off with the boys and only two guides, only to vanish forever.  Mysterious legends sprouted up around his disappearance as well.  Dozens of years later, author David Grann decides to head into the forest after them, seeking to find out what really happened to the trio and to uncover some truths about the mystical city itself.

What a fascinating book.  You may notice I’ve been into travelogues lately, and there is nothing I enjoy more than an author combining history with his or her own personal journey.  This is precisely what Grann does with his search for a city in the Amazon.  I adored the chapters on Fawcett, on the Amazon, and was as wrapped up in the legend as all the explorers were – although not quite enough to set off on foot through the Amazon.  I particularly appreciated the fact that Grann travels in a vehicle and notes that such a journey would have taken Fawcett weeks of hacking through undergrowth.  When Grann thought his trip was hard, it really brought into focus how incredibly difficult exploration of the rainforest was for men of Fawcett’s time and before.

Grann also notes that explorers of the Amazon are often ignored in favor of those who explored the North Pole.  For one thing, those explorers eventually succeeded, whereas no one managed to find the city of Z.  The exact same thing was happening while Fawcett was alive.  He struggled to get funding whereas northern explorers received both money and glory.  He became famous in the end, only to vanish at the apex of his popularity.  One particularly notable chapter included a famed northern explorer heading into the Amazon with Fawcett, only to turn back because he couldn’t take it.  It seems that either you’re suited to risking your life in intense heat and with many creatures out to kill you, or you’re more suited to dying of the cold – you can’t be awesome at both apparently.

I was probably least interested in Grann’s personal story.  It’s fairly obvious that he hasn’t died, which takes away all of the suspense, and he doesn’t really risk his life that much either.  I’m not saying that he imposes himself too much on the story; he doesn’t, it’s simply that I find historical details far more exciting.  He does make a few interesting discoveries, mainly at the end, and it’s worth it to get an up close and personal look at the natives that are likely very similar to those that Fawcett and various other teams encountered while on their hunt for the city.

The Lost City of Z was a fascinating look into exploring the Amazon rainforest and all of its perils.  I would definitely recommend it.

I am an Amazon associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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