Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hair-raising adventure book has N.C. ties

Some believe a downside to modern living is the ease with which almost anything is possible.

Searching for crocodiles is as simple as buying a spot on a safari tour. Or just heading down to Alligator Adventure in Myrtle Beach. Or just turning on the TV.

But turning the pages in "Jungleland" makes it clear that edgy adventures -- and true-life adventure writing -- survives in our high-tech times.

The subtitle of Christopher S. Stewart's book, now out in paperback (Harper Perennial, $15.99) is "A Mysterious Lost City and a True Story of Deadly Adventure."

While that makes it sound like a riff on  an Indiana Jones caper, Stewart's travel book hearkens to the age of great explorers as well as the days when National Geographic was black-and-white and treks into the unknown often involved danger.

Stewart, a New York-based journalist, is trying to pick up where adventurer Theodore Morde's quest led in the 1940s -- to Honduras, where Morde reported discovering an ancient "White City of the Monkey God" in the jungle. Morde returned to the States and was feted as a derring-do trailblazer. But Morde was loathe to offer too many details about the lost city's whereabouts, and was soon swept up in World War II. He never got the chance to return to Cemtral America  and -- like his discovery -- became a largely  forgotten footnote.

But his experience intrigued Stewart, whose research led him to North Carolina and to a nephew -- David Morde of Cary -- who had come to possess the late explorer's diary and other artifacts.

The diary helps  set in motion Stewart's journey and is a key to powering this book. Chapters of "Jungleland" deftly switch between Theodore Morde's  experience and that of his 21st-century successor.

Non-spoiler alert: You'll have to read just about to the end to learn whether Stewart located Morde's lost city.

The parallels between the twinned tales strikingly show how some things haven't changed in the seven intervening decades. Then as now, the swampy wilderness is vast and the national bird of Honduras is still the mosquito; its official animal may be the bandit. Political instability was rife for both -- a coup was in progress when Stewart was there in 2009.

And there are intriguing differences. The paraphrased story of Morde's experience is a pretty much a diary-based chronicle. Stewart's account of his own trip points up his eye for irony and the absurd. More important, his writing  is always pulling you to the next page.

Stewart's first-person story is straight-forward. (One early chapter begins, "We came across the dead body a few hours into our road trip.")

Adding credibility are the author's periodic
self-doubts about why he's risking live and limb while his wife and little daughter are back in New York.

"You don't have to do this," he occasionally remembers her telling him.

But as a reader, I'm glad Stewart went.