Edward Dolnick didn’t set out to write the next great American novel when he began researching John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River. Instead, Dolnick set out to write the most detailed historical count of Powell’s journey from notes, journals, interviews and factual information gathered through hundreds of hours of research. The end result is Down The Great Unknown, a thoroughly researched day-by-day account of Powell’s journey, his teams’ personal lives and the newspaper stories that gripped a nation and brought worldwide attention to the Grand Canyon.
Dolnick’s vision was not easy. He was writing about one of America’s most spectacular expeditions and with a wide variety of resources. It was an expedition so risky the ten participating men set out on a river through a part of America yet to be mapped. Dolnick quickly engages the reader and draws them into Powell’s dream by not shying away from the potential lunacy of Powell and his expedition. Dolnick weaves historical ideology with today’s river runners’ knowledge to help readers understand Powell’s task and the mechanics of such a large river.
Dolnick then goes into how Powell selected his crew and some of his men’s own personal struggles. Dolnick uses several of the expedition’s personal journals to create a strong connection between reader and Powell’s team. After setting up the expedition, Dolnick jumps into the expedition by using crude maps at the beginning of chapters to help the reader understand where the action takes place. Though Dolnick includes a larger map of the Colorado River at the front of the book, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of a map of the Colorado River to use when reading.
As Dolnick chronicles the expedition he doesn’t shy away from the wild ups and downs the crew faced during the first few weeks on the water. Dolnick uses accounts from several of the men to tell the story not shying way from the lower moments one might now find when reading a glossy account of the expedition. Though some of Dolnick’s critics have pointed out they felt he goes overboard at times describing the scene, I personally found it interesting and gripping. Constantly I wanted to continue reading at the end of a chapter, which typically wasn’t more than a ten pages long.
As the book continues, Dolnick focuses on Powell’s own leadership skills and “his ability to preserve in the face of calamity.” Dolnick pulls from Powell’s personal background and uses it to explain Powell’s decision-making skills. The historical background also provides strong context for the reader and helps unveil Powell’s sometimes-insane drive. Dolnick also spends time on members of the expedition helping the reader understand the day-to-day struggles and personalities.
In chapter nine, the reader is transported through Dolnick’s writing to ‘Hell’s Half Mile,’ a stretch of river found just within Colorado’s Territory. Dolnick reconstructs the hellish sequence of events Powell and his men encountered on this treacherous stretch of river. Dolnick helps the reader understand river hydrology while explaining some of the pitfalls one might encounter including foot entrapments, one of the quickest ways to die on a river.
Inside the book, readers can view historical pictures and documents relating to the expedition and John Wesley Powell. There are also sketches of Powell’s boats and some original journal entries. By this time in the book if you have not been to the Grand Canyon yourself, it will be hard to not want to view the stunning landscape through your own eyes.
Dolnick spends time in the second half of the book focusing heavily on the Grand Canyon and the expeditions successes and significance. The last few chapters discuss the hardships the expedition encountered towards the end of their journey. Fights, long violent rapids and bad weather were just a few of the hardships the expedition had to overcome.
Dolnick finishes with a short epilogue and then a lengthy list of sources credited to particular sections in the book. Dolnick starts off the section by stating, “This is the work on nonfiction. If the text says that the temperature was 115 degrees or the bacon was vile, one of the men made that observation. If thoughts are attributed to someone “Bradley thought this was the worst rapid yet, he said so.”
Possibly the most striking part of Dolnick’s work is that by the end of his book it’s nearly impossible to not want to take a Grand Canyon river trip yourself. If you are interested in Powell’s expedition, Grand Canyon history and geology than this is a great place to begin your journey.