With The Promise of the Grand Canyon, John Ross recreates John Wesley Powell's expedition along the Colorado River in all its glory and terror, but Powell's second (unheralded) career as a scientist, bureaucrat, and land-management pioneer concerns us today.
Yes, there have been several other comprehensive biographies of Powell, including Wallace Stegner’s ... Ross tells Powell’s story more powerfully, sprinkled with quotes from the explorer-geologist’s diary and a feeling of dramatic suspense—will he survive?—even though we know the outcome. The rip-roaring story of the one-armed veteran who risked life and (remaining) limbs to power through gorges and rapids, all while carefully recording evidence of the canyon’s ancient geology and gathering flora and fauna to take back East, never gets old. What makes the story more nuanced is that Powell didn’t seem to be especially likeable: didactic at times, refusing to dramatize his dramatic life, yet saddled with an almost reckless ambition. Disciplined. Bossy. Unbending
Biography helps pull together disparate elements of the past that created a whole person and her or his accomplishments. John F. Ross’ biography of Powell does this well ... The author’s own outdoor experience serves him well in describing Powell’s expeditions ... The advance copy I read was slim on references and bibliography; not that I question Ross’ knowledge, but I would have appreciated more information for my own future delving. I also missed hearing about wife ... In his biography of Powell, Ross reminds us of the potential nobility of public service and how government officials who stay true to science are, indeed, heroic.
Ross makes vivid Powell’s adventures, drawing on journals and contemporary accounts, even capturing the drama of vicious battles among scientists vying for federal funds, including Powell’s clashes with senators and bureaucrats, in this fascinating portrait.