Millard to present at alma mater

Men nearly drowning. Deadly disease lingering underneath the bloody surface of torn flesh. Indigenous tribes attacking. An ex-president on the verge of suicide.

These were hardly the experiences of Baker University alumna Candice Millard when she spent almost a month in Brazil for her first novel, “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.”

However, those events made the horrific journey of the 26th president of the United States, who is the subject of Millard’s most recent project, which she will present at the first of a series of four Baker book readings at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Audio-Visual Room in Owens Musical Arts Building.

Millard has had a worldly career since graduating.

After obtaining her degree in English education in 1989, Millard went on to teach for a short stint.

After deciding teaching wasn’t for her, Millard said she went back to what she loves – writing.

In 1996, Millard became an editor for “National Geographic” magazine and began writing articles, sending her all over the world. On her journeys, Millard ventured to Mongolia to cover groups of hunters and Ethiopia to write about the northern kingdom of Aksum.

“I loved it,” Millard said of her time at “National Geographic.” “It was a wonderful place to work. I worked with people who were interested in the world, in science …”

One setback of her job in Washington D.C., was the distance from her husband, who works in Kansas City, Kan.

“It was a wonderful place to be, but I thought it would probably be nice to live with my husband at some point,” she said.

After six years at “National Geographic,” Millard discovered she was pregnant with her first of two children and decided to head back to the heartland.

Since moving back to Kansas, Millard continued work on her first book, which was released in hardback in October 2005 after five years of research and writing. A paperback version will be released in October.

While working on the novel, Millard researched the presidential papers at the Library of Congress, diaries of naturalist George Cherrie – who accompanied Roosevelt on his journey – at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and the life of Brazilian explorer Candito Rondon while in Brazil.

While in Brazil, Millard said she also explored the area around the River of Doubt, which has been renamed Rio Roosevelt after his exploration succeeded. However, that success came with a price.

Millard said she found evidence of horrendous events from Roosevelt’s expedition, which he took in his mid-50s after losing a humiliating campaign for a third term as president.

In her research, Millard said she tried to include not only Roosevelt’s tale, but also that of the Cinta Larga tribe, natives to the western area of Brazil where Roosevelt ventured.

“It was important to me to tell the story from their point of view, as well,” she said. “This is part of their tribal history now. When Roosevelt was on the river, that was their first time seeing a white man. For us, it would be like someone from another planet.”

Adjunct Instructor of English Marti Mihayli said she is delighted for the opportunity to meet not only a successful alumna, but also the writer of the work.

“She has a strong writing ability,” Mihayli said. “One of the gripping things about this book, other than her writing and the subject with which she is working, is the inclusion of excerpts from old letters that are in themselves powerful. It’s a masterful weaving-together of back stories about these people before they made the journey in addition to the focus on the journey itself.”

Millard said she’s honored by the invitation from her alma mater.

“I’m thrilled. I’m really flattered that they invited me to come speak. I have such fond memories of my years at Baker,” she said. “I felt like I got a great education there. I learned so much. I learned a lot about writing, but I learned a lot about reading, as well. I think that’s served me so well in my career.”

Associate Professor of English Virginia Fambrough, who taught Millard in the late ’80s, said Millard’s success has come as no surprise to those who knew her as a student.

“She was a hard worker already when she got here, and she stayed that way. She was always an enthusiastic student, and it’s obvious that enthusiasm continues,” Fambrough said. “I’m delighted at her success and the recognition she’s getting. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

In addition to a reading and discussion, Millard will meet with Mihayli’s class, Creative Non-Fiction: The Personal Essay, to talk about the genre.

Sophomore Ashley Sims, who is in the class, said she hopes to gain some insight from Millard’s visit.

“It’s kind of cool to know that someone who went here made her way, especially in the writing world,” Sims said. “It allows us to be inspired. They tell us we have a really good chance to get jobs after we graduate, but to have people come back and tell us about their jobs and their experiences, it’s encouraging.”

The event is the first installment in a series of readings Mihayli is planning for the year. The next will be in early November featuring Jennifer Cain Bohrnstedt, a researcher and writer who will discuss the use of historical documents in modern works. In the spring, Mihayli said she is in the process of inviting an author of a graphic novel and a poet.

“We think this is very important for the students of Baker, not just those in English. They will have the opportunity to hear fine work across several genres and to actually meet the writers,” Mihayli said. “Previously, we’ve had to sponsor trips to Kansas City or Lawrence for students to hear writers of this caliber.”

Mihayli said she hopes the first event will be well-attended and inspiring to students.

“I think this is going to be a truly exciting evening with a truly stellar writer,” she said.