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The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes [Hardcover]

Scott Wallace
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 18 2011

THE UNCONQUERED TELLS THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY OF A JOURNEY INTO THE DEEPEST RECESSES OF THE AMAZON TO TRACK ONE OF THE PLANET’S LAST UNCONTACTED IN DIGENOUS TRIBES.
 
Even today there remain tribes in the far reaches of the Amazon rainforest that have avoided contact with modern civilization. Deliberately hiding from the outside world, they are the unconquered, the last survivors of an ancient culture that predates the arrival of Columbus in the New World.  In this gripping first-person account of adventure and survival, author Scott Wallace chronicles an expedition into the Amazon’s uncharted depths, discovering the rainforest’s secrets while moving ever closer to a possible encounter with one such tribe—the mysterious flecheiros, or “People of the Arrow,” seldom-glimpsed warriors known to repulse all intruders with showers of deadly arrows. On assignment for National Geographic, Wallace joins Brazilian explorer Sydney Possuelo at the head of a thirty-four-man team that ventures deep into the unknown in search of the tribe. Possuelo’s mission is to protect the Arrow People. But the information he needs to do so can only be gleaned by entering a world of permanent twilight beneath the forest canopy.

Danger lurks at every step as the expedition seeks out the Arrow People even while trying to avoid them. Along the way, Wallace uncovers clues as to who the Arrow People might be, how they have managed to endure as one of the last unconquered tribes, and why so much about them must remain shrouded in mystery if they are to survive. Laced with lessons from anthropology and the Amazon’s own convulsed history, and boasting a Conradian cast of unforgettable characters—all driven by a passion to preserve the wild, but also wracked by fear, suspicion, and the desperate need to make it home alive—The Unconquered reveals this critical battleground in the fight to save the planet as it has rarely been seen, wrapped in a page-turning tale of adventure.


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"Wallace's foreboding is matched by his sense of wonder." – New York Times Book Review

"Astonishing." – The London Sunday Times

"A rousing adventure tale." – Wall Street Journal

"Wallace's gripping account takes us upriver to a place very few outsiders have ever seen." – The Boston Globe

"What a great book! An adventure story worthy of Joseph Conrad or Peter Matthiessen." – The Oregonian

“Rousing.” – TIME
 
"Startlingly novelistic." – Salon.com

“It’s easy to picture The Unconquered being made into a movie.” – Washington Post Express
 
"Masterful...positively cinematic." – Yale Alumni Magazine

 “An eye-opening read…one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction around…. You’ll swear you are reading a thriller novel.” – Guernica
 
“Dream assignment or nightmare? An editor from National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to join an expedition into the deepest wilds of the Amazon jungle to find the mysterious ‘People of the Arrow.' While the experience was pretty much a nightmare, it’s a blessing for readers of Wallace's fascinating book.” — Associated Press
 
“Echoing Amazonia’s earliest European explorers, Wallace crafts a tale that is part gripping adventure story, part window into the unexpected complexities of a developing country where uncontacted tribes stand between a resource-hungry economy and an area abounding in natural wealth.” – Indian Country Today
 
“Rife with poachers, drug smugglers, illegal gold miners and violent tribes already acquainted with the dangers of modern life…Wallace describes the trek in vivid, if unsettling, terms.” – Maclean’s
 
“Wallace joins the tribe of jungle-besotted literary types led by Redmond O'Hanlon and David Grann and presents a credibly incredible tale about his voyage past the edge of modernity.” – Huffington Post
 
"A gripping tale of adventure." – Washingtonian

“While it’s hard to imagine that ‘stone-age’ tribes still persist in a world of cell phones, satellites and social media, it’s even harder to understand how difficult it is to police these isolated regions, to keep them free of outsiders who could endanger a way of life that has nearly disappeared…Wallace’s narrative is apt and penetrating.” – SEJournal

About the Author

SCOTT WALLACE is a journalist whose assignments have taken him from the Himalayas and the streets of Baghdad to the Alaskan Arctic and the Amazon. A former correspondent for the Guardian and Newsweek, he has written for National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and Harper’s. His photography has appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, and Sports Afield. His television credits include CBS, CNN, and National Geographic Channel.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Very good book but frustrating at points Feb. 2 2013
By shibubu
Format:Hardcover
This is a very good book but it is very slow to get started.

I understand the author's point in trying to build up a feeling for what he was going through and the emotional state that someone entering months in the Amazon's depths is facing. The issue it comes off self-serving and egotistical to the point that you nearly give up on the book before you actually arrive at their departure into the unknown. More frustrating is that after spending all this time on the family and personal relationships the author is compromising during the opening of the book, and touched on at various stages throughout his journey, he fails to wrap it up at the end at which point you're actually intrigued and hoping for some resolution. While he does touch on his parents and children at the end, most glaring is the ultimate omission of his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah, who he seems to dwell on the most during these "personal" parts and we are left to make our own conclusions about. It is ironic that you are at first frustrated with his inclusion of these relationships and then disappointed at the end with the lack of resolution, but ultimately it does leave you frustrated that after all that time, all those words, you're left simply not knowing.

Once you do get over the initial frustration of the author going in depth into his personal life, the book does gradually evolve to a thrilling real-life page turner that you find it increasingly more and more difficult to put down, until you reach the point that you're finished the book and hoping that maybe they find some way to go on another expedition, or are left examining the selection at Amazon for similar books.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very Inspiring Read Jan. 8 2013
By Eric C.
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Scott Wallace didn't disappoint. The book was a facsinating and compassionate look at some of the last uncontacted peoples of South America. The tribes that still live as they have for eons have remained uncontacted by their choice. Wallace and the people with him take their lives in their hands when attempting to get close to these people unspoiled by our measure of progress.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  116 reviews
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In wildness is the preservation of the world Aug. 11 2011
By Amelia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This book is amazing. Once I picked it up I could hardly put it down. It is a vivid account of a hair-raising, death-defying, real life adventure. That alone would be enough for a great read, but this book is so much more. It is also a record of the current conditions of the flora and fauna of the most dangerous, most inaccessible parts of the Amazon and the tribes who live among them. And it is a thoughtful contemplation of where indigenous tribes and unexploited wilderness fit in the modern world, including the challenges of assimilation or its opposite, total isolation and non-contact. This is a book that really made me think.

Scott Wallace spent three months - the entire summer of 2002 -- with the brilliant, dictatorial, obsessive Sydney Possuelo and his highly diverse band of Indians and whites as they traveled by riverboat, by canoe, and on foot through parts of the Amazon that are off-limits to all but indigenous peoples and a handful of government officials. The expedition's objective was to gather information while getting as close as possible to the Arrow People, an uncontacted tribe known for its effective use of curare-poisoned arrows, without running into them or being killed by them.

Over the course of the expedition and the book, Wallace gets to know the 34 men who made the expedition under Possuelo's iron-fisted leadership. Most impressive is Valdeci Rios, called Soldado (the soldier), whose backwoods expertise, superhuman strength, and wide-ranging abilities in the face of every challenge will make your jaw drop. Soldado is eventually laid low for a time by malaria, but his response to this gruesome disease adds to the reader's sense that he is a man who can overcome all obstacles. As a group, the other members of the expedition are also astonishing. At the end of each day of exhausting trekking, they not only hunt for the group's food but also transform a plain forested area into an elaborate campsite equipped with stairs with handrails, cooking and cleaning areas, individual covered hammock sites, and surfaces for tables and seating. Their efforts seem herculean given that each campsite is used for one night only and all their work must be repeated every twenty-four hours.

Scott Wallace will have you on the edge of your seat with concern for him and the other members of the expedition as they bathe in piranha and caiman-infested waters, scramble over slick logs high above raging rivers, hike through thick bamboo groves and skyscraper-tall trees, while tripping on hanging vines and rodent-burrows. They are not accompanied by a doctor or other medical staff nor are they in touch with anyone who can assist them should they be injured or fall ill. The forest is populated with all manner of things that seem bent on killing or maiming the men: stinging ants, hairy spiders, poisonous snakes, stealthy jaguars, and more. The dangers that the expedition must avoid include the subject of their study - the Arrow People - a tribe they are working to support and even save. There is no false drama here. All the threats are real and vividly recounted.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in (1) true adventure, (2) the Amazon, (3) indigenous peoples, (4) untrammeled wilderness, (5) environmental challenges, or (6) what it takes to get a story and photographs for National Geographic magazine. This book is especially important because it is a record of a rare expedition into the deepest, most inaccessible parts of the Amazon written by an unusually humble, thoughtful, and experienced writer. Wallace's book is painful, magnificent, profound and not to be missed.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A National Geographic Adventure Sept. 27 2011
By Brenda Frank - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Scott Wallace is a seasoned National Geographic journalist experienced in wars, revolutions, and the struggles of native tribes in the Amazon, the Arctic, and the Andes. "The Unconquered" tells of his 78-day journey in 2002 with Brazilian explorer and activist Sydney Possuelo working for the National Indian Foundation of Brazil (FUNAI) to establish the location of the uncontacted Flecheiros, the Arrow People, while NOT contacting them. The objective was to obtain information to protect these isolated, uncontacted native people from the encroachment of White Men and civilization, including diseases, illegal logging and gold mining, poaching and drug trafficking. The risk of contact also threatened the team in that the Flecheiros are known as skilled archers killing intruders with poison-tipped arrows.

The team, led by Possuelo, contained 34 men, including Indians of the three tribes neighboring the Flecheiros and Brazilian frontiersmen. The Flecheiros' territory is a very remote area of Brazil, with no roads, only rivers and jungle. The explorers took motorboats as far as they could, then trekked through the jungle, covering 250 miles. They carried all their equipment through the jungle, some men with as much as 100 pounds on their backs, making trails with machetes.

The isolation in the jungle was complete; the sky disappeared. If Wallace lost sight of the person before him, he immediately became lost. The dense canopy rendered useless the GPS, a two-way radio and the satellite phone. The explorers had no recourse in case of serious illness or injury; no medical personnel accompanied them. Risks included jaguars, ants with vise-like mandibles and toxic stingers, anacondas, caimans, deadly vipers, fire ants, swarms of wasps with stingers as big as darts, poisonous spiders, anacondas and bamboo sharp enough to impale a man. Wallace became so fearful that he said a "jungle prayer" for his safety each morning, although he hadn't prayed since childhood.

Food was irregular and scarce, depending on what was available to shoot or catch in the rivers. Breakfast was sometimes a couple of crackers. For days, dinner was chunks of monkey, boiled. "It was haunting, the sight of those monkeys piled one on top of the other, pink and naked, like a half dozen toddlers dismembered and set to boil." Piranha were easy to catch and made a tasty meal, if you didn't swallow the many tiny bones. A real treat was the massacre of a herd of peccaries.

Wallace estimated that during the jungle trek they burned 6,000 calories per day but ate an average of only 800 calories. He lost 33 pounds during the journey. Some men were seriously ill with dysentery and malaria. Some lunch stops were without any food. The scarcity of supplies led to food hoarding and stealing. Possuelo, a martinet, fired a FUNAI employee for stealing a boiled chicken egg from the galley of the boat.

Footprints, broken branches, and temporary encampments made clear that the Flecheiros were watching and following the explorers. The rules of conduct applied: carry rifles conspicuously at all times; always have two or three guards; travel in large numbers; never allow yourselves to be surrounded. When the team came upon an abandoned Flecheiro village, they deliberately changed directions to avoid encounter. Yet, as a gesture of friendship, they left gifts of cooking pots and a new machete. Incongruous? Yes.

I was stunned to read that after trekking back through the jungle and returning to the river, the team's ability to get home wholly depended on the Indians building canoes for transportation, since the original motor boats had been sent back after the team reached the jungle. The Indians spent 15 days building two dugout canoes, one 40 feet and another 50 feet, including seats and paddles. They cut down tall trees, hollowed out the trunks with machetes and burned the interiors to widen them. Then, they had to make a path through the jungle to allow them to carry the canoes to the water and launch them without destruction. Such self-sufficiency in the jungle is truly impressive!

"Unconquered" is a well-written, thoughtful saga of nearly 500 pages with detailed descriptions of the challenges, hardships and dangers of the expedition, historical background, social interaction among the team members and a study of the incomparable Possuelo. I felt that this well researched and thoroughly documented compelling story justified its length and was not tempted to skip or gloss over any part.

Wallace produced a stellar work bringing attention to the plight of isolated populations living in ecologically vulnerable environments through a tale of peril and adventure without the all too common overwhelming tone of gloom and doom. "Unconquered" is important nonfiction with the enjoyment of a good work of fiction.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Came, We Saw, We Left Them Alone Aug. 14 2011
By The Spinozanator - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is a day by day, sometimes hour by hour documentary of a 3 month trek through the Amazon with brilliant, infamous, & controversial Sydney Possuello and his crew - 34 men total. Possuello invited National Geographics journalist Scott Wallace and photographer Nicolas Reynard along to document the trip - both hand-picked because of their extensive experience working in the Amazon. Journalists and photographers were usually excluded on these trips but Possuello sought world-wide media coverage for his cause. His stated purpose was to document on the ground the presence of isolated and uncontacted tribes and their villages as seen from the air - counteracting assertions of loggers and others who want to deny these tribes exist - landgrabs have been historically justified by the claim that no one was there. Possuello also had several secondary purposes concerning monitoring of possible illegal activity in the reserve.

*The official Brazilian approach, championed by Possuello, was to prevent contact with any of the 20-30 known isolated tribes - some 4,000 Indians - that thrive in the deepest parts of the Amazon. This approach also placed millions of acres out of reach from the logging, fishing, and gold-prospecting industries - and shutting out missionaries and anthropologists. Possuello had a lot of enemies.

*Possuello's primary rationale for the no contact policy was the Indians' extreme vulnerability to contagious disease. Like the North American and South American Indians during the times of Columbus and other explorers, the indigenous populations simply had no resistance to the germs whites carried. Other reasons included the inevitable decline if not eradication of every tribe after contact, regardless of whether the contact was friendly or hostile. Possuello had seen this happen over and over again in the "assimilated" tribes. "The Indians weren't assimilated: they were segregated and relegated to the lowest rungs of society" - a phenomenon readily apparent in the villages of the Indians hired for the expedition, as well as demonstrated by history all over the world.

*Possuello himself was controversial, not only in Brazilian politics, but with his men. At times he was a charismatic story-teller; a born entertainer - capable of endearing himself to anyone and always diplomatic with the indigenous people. In every village and from every Indian vessel on the river, "Indians called and waved to Possuello with undisguised adulation. They adored him, plain and simple....with Indians, he was always possessed of charm, patience, and good humor." With his men he could be the same, entertaining them every night with stories, however, he could be an unreasonable taskmaster who might explode at any time. He could be punitive for no reason and might, for example, hold back rations to "keep his men from getting soft," even when the trip was almost over and the extra eggs would just spoil.

*Possuello took 20 Indians from 3 separate tribes, both for their jungle skills and for a variety of indigenous languages, should inadvertent contact with the Arrow people happen despite their best intentions. The Matis tribe had the strongest gropup with 12. They all had identical nose piercings, parallel streaks tattooed on their cheeks, white clamshell earrings, and fine bamboo shoots that sprouted from the sides of their nostrils, resembling jaguar whiskers. When morale was at its worst, these tribe members always managed to be upbeat, constantly bantering with each other and ribbing Wallace and the others. Their positive attitudes is probably why Possuello took so many of them. All 34 members were issued identical military camo outfits. Possuello also brought a formidable arsenal of 20 guage shotguns and 22 rifles, although if attacked by the Arrow people, they were to only fire in the air. Right before they left the last boat, one of the Matis gave each explorer a military buzz haircut.

*When the Matis killed paca for the group, they ate the heads themselves and saved the paca incisors to make sights for their blowguns. Blowguns, hollowed out shafts of cane up to 8 feet long, were better than guns for monkey-hunting because they were quiet. By the time the monkeys realized what was happening, several could have already dropped to the ground.

*Wallace estimated that during the overland trek they burned 6,000 calories per day but ate an average of only 800 calories, the major meat of their diet coming from monkeys. There were no medical people on the trip and little to no chance of evacuation in case of injury. At the end of the trek the whites looked significantly worse than the Indians. Many of the men, especially the whites, had malaria. Almost all, especially the whites, had various forms of dysentery, and Wallace lost 33 pounds. Why the lack of calories occurred in a rainforest rife with life, I'm not sure. They were on a tight schedule and didn't hunt during their daily marches during which they carried 80 pound backpacks, even if game was sighted or heard. The hunters were sent out only when they broke to build a camp, which was quite an elaborate endeavor - the impressive community stucture only to be abandoned the next morning. They didn't take the time to dig for grubs or forage for food and apparently fruits and vegetables weren't available.

*Soldado was culturally white but his dad was a Marubo Indian who was kidnapped from the riverbank by whites when he was nine. This happened around WWII when another Amazon Rubber Boom was in full swing - an industry which devastated every tribe it touched. The Rubber Booms had been to the tribes of the Amazon what the US Cavalry had been to the Indians of the western United States. Soldado lived with a wife and 12 children in a riverhouse on stilts. He'd been on 6 expeditions with Possuello over the years and eating monkeys made him feel like a cannibal. "A lot of people don't like that I work for FUNAI but one has to make a living," he told Wallace. Possuello confirmed, "Any of them could find themselves marked men when this is over and they go home." Illegal activity created jobs. Wallace built personal relationships with most of the 33 other men on this trip and he relates many of their stories.

*Pidgin Portuguese emerged as the official language and the group all began to parody themselves and each other, deliberately using mangled phrases with a certain knowing irony. One of the Matis, Ivan Arapa, began calling Scott Wallace "Scotchie." The whole group liked the name and it stuck. Ivan told Wallace about his tribe's first contact with the white man and the lethal diseases that followed. As many as 2/3 of the tribe perished. Later on, Ivan showed Wallace a jaguar track on a beach. "Scotchie! Come! Look!......Maybe jaguar comes to visit Scotchie tonight?"

*After village men determined visitors were not hostile the women would follow with official greetings. They would arrive singing a high-pitched song, bringing caisuma for their visitors to drink, made from chewed cassava root and human saliva. It was considered bad form to refuse such hospitality. Various villages had slightly different recipes but it was all horrible and Wallace never managed to swallow it without a strong sense of revulsion. Diplomacy demanded they make at least a cursory stop at each hamlet along the river before their trek. At one of them Possuello recruited 4 more Kanamari Indians. One of them, Alfredo, became Wallace's servant at $3/day, the non-negotiable price set by Posseullo. The Kanamaris called the Arrow people "Capybaras" and had other animal names for other tribes. The Indians at all Kanamari villages agreed the Arrow people were dangerous, untamed, and they all avoided Capybaras land upriver.

*The sky was magnificent at night on the river but once they got into the jungle they may not see the sky for weeks, night or day - creating a sense of claustrophobia. After Wallace briefly got lost in the jungle a couple of times he took up praying every morning - a thing he hadn't done since childhood and his prayers got more detailed as the trip wore on.

*Mauro, an affable Brazilian hired as a cook, hated preparing and cooking the monkeys. At night he would frequently wake up screaming with a recurring dream that the monkeys were threatening his private parts with big knives. "Hey, Mauro, what happened last night - had a go with a couple of monkeys?" He greeted the jokes with a toothless smile. "Monkey meat was tough and rubbery. It had a strong, gamey flavor and the smell was nauseating but we had eaten almost nothing else all day and it was sustenance." They never knew where their next meal was coming from and once robbed a honey bee nest containing a sweetness they hadn't had in weeks.

*For a while, following Possuello's GPS - one of the few things they had over Lewis & Clark - they averaged 16 hills a day; 16 inclines and 16 descents, all slick with mud after the first few men. "Even Possuello was surprised by the ferocity of the terrain." At the end of one of these horrible days, Possuello made them camp in an area infested with a particularly nasty breed of carpenter ant, despite warnings from the Matis. "Dinner was a grim affair. Monkey yet again."

*They endured mosquitoes, ants that eat anything and everything, nasty wasps with stingers like darts, venomous snakes, caimans, anacondas, hairy spiders that cause infections if their hair touches your skin, oversized scorpions with stingers like hypodermic needles, caterpillars with poisonous hair, frogs with poisonous skin, funnel-shaped poisonous mushrooms, and inch long bullet ants whose pinchers were used by many tribes in sacred rites of passage to sting and bite the pubescent boys. Their pincer jaws were also ingeniously used as field sutures - lacerations being closed by a series of bites. Once the ant locks its pincers on the wound, its head is twisted from his thorax, leaving the jaw suture in place.

*"fungal mycelia provide a pipeline of crucial minerals to the trees...they're one of the reasons why the soils of these forests are so poor, completely unfit for large-scale agriculture, yet able to sustain the giant trees." One day at lunch the Matis concocted a potion from the forest that made color vision more vivid and provided boundless energy. It was administered as eyedrops from a makeshift dropper made from palm leaves and burned like fire but everybody lined up for their dose. It made for an energetic 3D trek the rest of the day. "One quarter of all prescription drugs have their origin in rain forests."

* Among the things they ate were piranha, eel, pirarucu, catfish, turkey and other game birds, paca, agouti, caiman, tortoise, monkey, boar, tapir, and turtle eggs - no fruit, no vegetables. Niceties went out the window: At lunch, Wallace ate the monkey meat with his bare hands: "My fingers were caked with filth but normal standards of hygiene had long since gone out the window. Worm in the soup? No problem, flick it out and keep eating. Fly crawling on a piece of meat? No big deal."

*The Arrow people became acutely aware of the expedition and Posseullo was missing 2 of the Kanamari Indians. Possuello told Paulo Welker, "It looks like the Kalamari have been killed. Maybe they've been captured. Go back and warn the others. Tell them to prepare for an attack......move to the far side of the creek, clear the brush, form a defensive perimeter." Later, "We have to get out of here," Possuello said. "Maybe the Indians will let them go but we can't wait here for them."

This book is wonderfully written by Wallace and flows like a novel, complete with an epilogue documenting Possuello's unfortunate termination from FUNAI and the death of photographer Nicolas Reynard in a plane crash. FUNAI's future stance on the Indians is not assured due to Brazil's change in leadership but Peru has come around a bit. Some of the photos from the expedition are available on an internet link provided by one of the other reviews. This is one great book.
39 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars with the right expectations you'll enjoy Aug. 25 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I'm someone who loves historical fiction, books where I can learn something about history, but yet be entertained by a story with pace and some excitement. Depending on the topic, I can be enthralled by a straight historical work more focused on relating facts than entertaining, but it takes the right topic.

For me, the Amazon and its tribes are interesting, but not fascinating in themselves topics. When ordering this book, I was hoping for a fast paced book that would give me some education, but more importantly propel me through an engaging adventure. This book does both, but to the extremes. It is definitely an adventure, telling the story of a journalist's guided expedition through the Amazon. However, it is offers near textbook-level discourse on the Amazon, its tribes, history, political issues and so on. And therein lies my issue. If you're someone who savors Amazon history, you'd likely drool over each page. However, if you're more interested in an Indiana Jones-level treatment of the history, while offering a quick adventure, look elsewhere.

As in most areas, enjoyment is often predicated on having the right expectations from the forthcoming experience. I hope my review helps you set the right expectations when deciding whether to buy and how to approach this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unconquered by Scott Wallace Nov. 20 2011
By Neena - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent read, full of adventure. Mr. Wallace portrays factual events in an exciting way such that one becomes involved with the characters in the book. I usually read fiction, and The Unconquered reads like a novel! I highly recommend it.
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