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Down the Great Unknown


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About the Author

Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown, The Forger's Spell, and the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he lives with his wife near Washington, D.C.


On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and a band of nine volunteer frontiersmen embarked from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, in four wooden boats. The one-armed Union veteran and geology professor set out to explore the uncharted Green and Colorado rivers and pass through the mysterious Grand Canyon, reaching his destination at the mouth of the Virgin River in Arizona in late August. To research this journey, former Boston Globe science writer Dolnick relied on Powell's river and postexpedition diaries and his crew's journals. These accounts reveal the friction between the overbearing Powell and his independent mountain men, which resulted in defections and the mysterious disappearance of three crew members. Dolnick's study offers excellent descriptions of the riverine obstacles, the inadequacy of the boats employed, the back-breaking tasks of lining and portaging, the constant threat of death from starvation and hostiles, and the wildly speculative press accounts. The author's liberal use of corroborative testimony from contemporary whitewater professionals may, however, prove distracting. Dolnick's concluding chapter shows how Powell's eventual campaign of self-promotion both secured for him a place in history and effectively eclipsed (by design) the amazing contributions of his men. Recommended for Western collections and all libraries. [For a fictional account of Powell's sojourn, see John Vernon's The Last Canyon, p. 144. Ed.] John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Powell led his band of stalwart trappers and ex-soldiers down the Green River in Wyoming Territory, heading for the last bit of terra incognita in the U.S.: the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. The expedition had plenty of supplies, but the wrong type of boats for shooting rapids. Moreover, their inexperience with rapids cost them one of the boats and many provisions. There was little game to supplement their rapidly dwindling food supply. And being the first to chart the river, they didn't know what lay beyond each twist. These handicaps, along with deadly river rocks, soaring canyon walls and one-armed Powell's impressive feat of scaling them to measure their height, make for a remarkable journey. Unfortunately, Dolnick does the story a disservice in overwriting the expedition's slower moments. He frequently overexplains, and he never meets a simile he doesn't like. Every description, no matter how effective, is carried too far, suggesting Dolnick doesn't trust his story or his readers: "rapids... do not murmur. They rumble. They roar. They crash. The sound evokes a thunderstorm just overhead, a jet skimming the ground, a runaway train.... The message is worse than the sound itself the roar of a rapid is a proclamation of danger as clear as a giant's bellowed curse in a fairy tale." After passages like that, readers may want to jump ship, or like Powell's band, they can struggle through and emerge battered but illuminated. Photos and illus. (Oct. 2) Forecast: Will a 15-city NPR campaign, six-city author tour and big-time advertising help the story trump the writing? Yes. The adventure is that good. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

"Written with authority and zeal, this rich narrative is popular history at its best." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)"Edward Dolnick's Down the Great Unknown is both good history and a successful adventure yarn." -- Harper's Magazine

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