Review of Christopher S. Stewart, Jungleland, Harper Collins 2013
Jungleland is a fast-paced adventure into the deep jungle of Honduras. The book recounts a journalist’s quest to retrace the path of a mysterious explorer and finally reveal the truth of the lost city of ‘Ciudad Blanca.’ The clarity and pacing of the book will move you along quickly. You will not want to put it down, nor do you have to, as it is not overly long. Jungleland, however, is something more than it appears at first glance. Stewart, a writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal, has packed a remarkable amount of good content into a tight package, and combined introspection and history to ask questions about how we see ourselves, others, and the unknown.
Jungleland is about men who look for ‘lost cities,’ some of whom get close, and then decide to never go back. The book alternates, chapter-by-chapter, between Stewart’s journey into the Honduran jungle, and that of Theodore Morde, a WWII spy and adventurer. That, however, is a narrative structure that houses Stewart’s gaze upon more complex and subtle issues. The structure is deliberate and effective, and creates a dual-story line that locks the readers attention as effectively as a thriller. Stewart uses three men, Morde, himself, and Christopher Begley (the archaeologist who led Stewart through the jungle) to examine the thoughts, motives and fears of reasonably normal people who decide to look for lost cities. The travelers themselves are a foil for the Honduran men they encounter who live in a seemingly continuous jungle traverse.
Stewart is not a wordy or encyclopedic writer, and he credits his reader with a general understanding of the rainforest and an ability to draw meaning from the prose and detail. This is a welcome change from the trend of adventure books (especially those set in the rainforest) to be exhaustive encyclopedias of ecology and history. Stewart is not given to filler, and he writes with a terseness derived, perhaps, from his years as a journalist. Regardless, he embraces the idea that reading about an expedition need not be an expedition, something many readers will appreciate. Stewart (with a wonderful spaceman image from Begley) makes it pretty clear: travel overland in the rainforest is walking, and walking gets boring. Graciously, the reader is spared lengthy botanical asides or overarching historical musings. When the journey yielded nothing to report, nothing was reported. Stewart’s strength is in recording the details that build his story and drive his inquiry. When Stewart shares his musings about jaguars attacking his hammock from below, he sums up a thought all foreign hammock-swingers have thought, but also succinctly shares his sense of helpless immersion. Stewart’s comments and descriptions drip with verisimilitude. When he mentions buying machetes and taking them to be sharpened, in his terse fashion he reveals a mundane reality of the machete-wielding world—they are not sold pre-sharpened.
Stewart’s ability to understand and embrace the vagaries of archaeology and history elevate Jungleland above a book about self-discovery. Stewart dug into the history of Theodore Morde, and answered some questions about just what he was doing in Honduras. The investigation of Morde is an essential part of the book, and Stewart’s research addresses the more interesting questions about the man without becomingly side-tracked by vague clues about the location of a lost city. Likewise, Stewart digests the archaeological realities of the region and with the help of Begley quickly see how these are a part of the vision of Morde and others. Stewart weaves these elements into the narrative so well, that to say more here would reveal to much. Be assured that Stewart (and Begley) give the reader some solid answers and some thought-provoking interpretation.
It took me awhile to put my finger on what is unique about Jungleland. The pacing of the book and dual plot lines read akin to fiction, but there is more affinity than just structure. Stewart’s writing and meaning is in the imagery and meticulously chosen details. His perspicuity opens the door for readers, but there is no handholding or shoving. Stewart’s image of a flip-flop wearing young girl appearing out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, carrying a child and a battered chicken, speaks many truths about poverty, hardship, and the sliding scale of normalcy. The reader is offered no essay on socioeconomics, and no moralizing. Stewart leaves the unanswerable questions unanswered, while encapsulating his meaning in precise descriptions. Jungleland is a work that is worth with care, for the pictures and meaning imbedded in the details. These details are balanced, however, with a fast pace that makes the book a quick read.
Stewart’s refuses to be exhaustive and obvious in his writing Similarly, he does not deliver a hyperbolic adventure and treasure hunt. The work includes a painfully honest account of a city boy going to the jungle. His fear of snakes leads him to some questionable fashion choices. Irrational concerns push into his thoughts, and depression is always lurking, like a jaguar, waiting for a moment of weakness. When a comrade is hurt, Stewart reveals that he was partly glad, as that might mean the ordeal was over. These unusually honest moments will be cringe-worthy and familiar to other travelers who read the work, including Stewart’s conflicting desires to quest but also be home when his family needs him. Humor, however, pervades the book, and it is in part the dark humor of adventurers, where cars are destroyed without a backward glance, and threats of raccoons and jaguars have to be treated as equal.
Stewart deliberately contrasts himself to the fascinating Chris Begley, who is calm, competent and even nonchalant in situations far from ordinary. Stewart’s departure from the canonical traveler-overcoming-all-odds cliché is a strength of the book. In a world overflowing with ego-stroking, the lack of self-adulation and acceptance of mundane realities makes this work stand out. Stewart tells the truth of jungle travel—everyone gets blisters, no one escapes problems of hunger and water. For Stewart, these are not issues to ignore, but neither are they issues to dwell upon. There are no heroes, just individuals who manage to keep walking. This is a fairly harsh realism, and some readers will be horrified by this deviation from the formula. A man from the city who does not like to camp dared to accomplish such a trip. The cult is not destroyed, however. There is a hero, it’s just not Stewart (or Morde).
If I have one main concern, it is that Stewart sells himself short, and I think by doing so, he makes the journey seem a little too simple and himself a little too naïve. The areas Stewart visited are very remote. An inspection of his route on Google Earth quickly reveals that Stewart went much deeper into the bush than many similar trekkers tracing the routes of famous explorers. Cable channels are filled with faux-adventurers who rarely venture a few hundred yards off the beaten path, and someone who actually goes deep is worthy of note. The ‘bad guys’ Stewart encounters in Jungleland are probably not the first ‘bad guys’ he has encountered, nor are the guns likely the first he has seen. As the book is exploring the psyche of explorers, I felt a little deprived, wanting to know how Stewart’s earlier experiences played into this desire for a new quest. Stewart does not seem inclined to show those cards however, and it probably is not fair to praise an author for terseness while demanding more. The publisher, however, may wish to include a foreward in subsequent editions. I loved the ‘extensive’ biographical detail on the dust jacket: “He lives with his family in Brooklyn.”
(The title of this post are the last words of the book).
(You can see some photos from the trip here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.244309235698575.56501.237068053089360&type=3)
As a point of context, I know a bit about ‘Ciudad Blanca.’ In the late 1990s I did some satellite remote sensing in the area, and started an ill-considered project I quickly abandoned. (I’m embarrassed, but you can see it here on the Internet Archive: http://ow.ly/h0GV7). I had a website up for awhile, and things turned crazy pretty quickly. A lost adventurer called me on a satellite phone from a ridge above the Rio Platano. A helicopter had dropped him off separate from his gear, and with topographic maps spread on my floor in Minnesota, I navigated him to the closest village. That same winter, a group hunting for ‘Ciudad Blanca’ kept trying to hack into my computer system, no doubt thinking I had found something important. I went to Tegucigalpa to seek permits to ground-truth the satellite work, and spoke to some individuals who had traveled through the area, including some who insisted the area was full of ex-contras who would kill me on-sight. After that visit and a brief helpful phone chat with Christopher Begley, who graciously gave me a candid account of the very real security issues, I decided the fieldwork would be too expensive and time-consuming to demonstrate that geological anomalies in the Honduran rainforest can be seen from space. Reading Jungleland, however, make me think I might still go there one day. . . .
As a disclaimer, I note that I communicated with Stewart briefly via email when I learned he was writing the book. I found this out while idly searching for Theodore Morde on the internet, and I eagerly awaited learning more about the intriguing man. I bought my own copy, however, and no one asked me to do a review.
One note from Richard—my father kept this book on the shelf of books behind glass, near the Thurber. I read it a dozen time. One would think, what with me being an archaeologist and historian, I would have thought to talk to him about it before he died. . . .