Study Guide

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Themes

By David Grann

  • Exploration

    With today's technology, you can explore the world from the comfort of your own couch. Rise of the Tomb Raider sticks you in Siberia. Doom takes you all the way to Mars. And Uncharted leads you on a journey eerily similar to that of Col. Fawcett.

    The Lost City of Z takes place at a time when the Amazon jungle was literally uncharted. Fawcett is charting it, and he is so excited to fill in the blanks that he concocts a fabulous city beyond our wildest imagination. Okay, we're exaggerating. He imagined it, so it's within imagination, but that doesn't make it real.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What is Fawcett's motivation for exploring the Amazon before he develops the theory of Z?
    2. What are Fawcett's contributions? How would the world be different if Fawcett did not go on his expeditions?
    3. Does David Grann discover anything unexpected during his exploration of the Amazon? What does he find that he didn't expect to find?
    4. Do the the explorers in the book have anything specific in common?

    Chew on This

    Fawcett's and Grann's expeditions are almost total opposites. Fawcett starts with nothing and works his way toward a destination; Grann starts at the endpoint and tries to work his way back to the beginning. The two men meet, metaphorically, in the middle.

    Fawcett has the luxury of being an OG explorer: all who follow him are literally following in his footsteps. The more people follow Fawcett into the jungle, the easier their journeys become, because the trail has already been blazed.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    Throughout the annals of history, old white dudes have been the primary lens through which the world is viewed. Anyone outside of this gray, pasty worldview is considered "the Other." The Other is often labeled as dangerous, and it's often feared by these washed-out and washed-up old bros—especially if it's the tribes of the Amazon jungle we're talking about. Films like Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, for example,depict Amazonian tribes as bloodthirsty cannibals.

    In some cases, that can be true. Everything is delicious with enough salt, right? Reality, though, is always more nuanced. As we explore the Amazon with Fawcett and Grann in The Lost City of Z, we learn about the great diversity in the jungle.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. What prejudices are held by the Royal Geographic Society and its members, and how do these prejudices affect the expeditions?
    2. How does Fawcett treat the natives of the Amazon? What does he do differently from other explorers?
    3. How have attitudes toward tribes in the Amazon rain forest changed from Fawcett's time to our time?

    Chew on This

    To ethnocentric explorers, natives are the "other." But to the natives of the forest, the explorers are the others.

    Fawcett is unique for his time period, give that he identifies more with the Amazonian tribes than with his fellow white explorers. As a result, he has a more sympathetic view of these groups.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The world can be divided into two groups: those love to hike and camp, and those who are sane.

    We're kidding, all you crazy campers. Today, camping can be just as luxurious as staying in a four-star hotel. Or at least staying in a Motel 6. Tents come with floors and air vents; there are have been huge advances in bug repellent technology; and you can even bring a generator so you don't fall behind on Kim Kardashian: Hollywood on your iPad.

    In The Lost City of Z, Percy Fawcett has none of these things. Not only is it hard to imagine a world without Kim K, but it's hard to imagine a world without campers, water filters, and canoes that you can fold in your pocket. Fawcett has to face off against the dangers of the Amazon with basically his strength and wits alone.

    On the plus side, the Amazon has fewer cockroaches than Motel 6.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What are Fawcett's biggest physical challenges in the jungle? How does he overcome them? How does technology make it easier for Grann to face similar challenges?
    2. What does Fawcett learn from the natives that helps him adapt to his environment?
    3. Are Fawcett's rival explorers as adept at dealing with nature as he is? How do Fawcett and Rice approach their environment differently?
    4. Who is the modern-day counterpart for Fawcett, a man who lives and works in the jungle the same way Fawcett did? Why do you think this man prefers to live in the jungle? What does Grann learn from him?

    Chew on This

    The more Fawcett explores, and the friendlier he is to local tribes, the more tricks he learns to find food, which is critical for survival in the jungle.

    Surviving the Amazon requires a very specific skill set, and it's different from other survival skills. Knowing this, Fawcett thrives in the jungle, while Murray, who has been in the Antarctic, wilts rapidly.

  • Visions of the Amazon

    The Amazon is more than a river. It's more than a jungle. It's more than a super convenient website where you can order anything. And it's more than the setting of The Lost City of Z. David Grann paints us a vivid portrait of the jungle as the world viewed it in 1920. He shows us how "Western" opinions of the jungle developed and evolved, and he shows us how they continue to change today.

    On the other hand, the more things change, they more they seem to stay the same. Today, as it was when early explorers first ventured inside it, the Amazon is dangerous, filled with parasites, and easy to get lost in. And we're just talking about the website. Don't even get us started on the jungle.

    Questions About Visions of the Amazon

    1. What do people think the Amazon is like when Fawcett first begins exploring it? How do his contributions—and Rice's findings—change the world's opinion of the jungle?
    2. How is the jungle different today than it was when Fawcett explored it? How has it remained the same?
    3. Do you think tribal life has changed, or is it just that Western civilization's knowledge of it has changed?
    4. How do you think the Amazon will look a hundred years from now?

    Chew on This

    No explorer or observer can pass through an area without leaving it untouched. The more outsiders there are who visit the Amazon, the more the Amazon changes for future generations.

    If this book had an antagonist, it would be the Amazon. It's dangerous, mysterious, and misleading, like all great supervillains.

  • Spirituality

    In 2013, one in five Americans identified as "spiritual but not religious." That means they believe in a higher power but not an organized institution built around one.

    The Lost City of Z shows us how, almost 100 years ago, the world started moving down this path. Science was disproving some of the claims of organized religions, and many former believers turned to different kinds of spirituality for comfort. They employed mediums, consulted Ouija boards, and probably would have lived their lives by Chinese restaurant placemats had Chinese restaurant placemats existed.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. Why does Fawcett consult mediums and use Ouija boards?
    2. Would you consider Fawcett spiritual or superstitious?
    3. What does Fawcett hope to find in the jungle? Is the quest for Z a spiritual quest, as his son Brian later suggests?
    4. How do the native tribes we meet display their spirituality? Is their religion or spirituality respected by outside cultures?

    Chew on This

    The closer Fawcett gets to Z, the further away from it he feels. In his desperation, he turns to more radical forms of spirituality to validate his beliefs in a city that may not exist.

    Scientists discourage Fawcett from searching for Z because they do not believe it is possible for Z to exist. Spiritualists encourage Fawcett's search because they are comfortable hoping that the unknown is actually out there.

  • Family

    Swiss Family Robinson shows us a family adapting to a harsh environment and enjoying their time in the process. Tree houses? Fun on the beach? Yes, please.

    Yeah, well, it's a children's story, and it's also a lie.

    The Lost City of Z shows us a reality in which explorers leave their wives and children behind to face the dangers of the jungle with a group of sweaty men; women and children are not allowed. They don't abandon their families because they're selfish and heartless (okay, they might be a little selfish and heartless); they do it because in real life, the Amazon jungle would eat their children alive. If the cannibals don't get them, the ants, snakes, and parasites will.


    Questions About Family

    1. Does Fawcett have regrets about leaving his family behind? Does Nina wish he would stay?
    2. Why does Fawcett decide to bring his son with him into the jungle? Why does Lynch, in 1996, also decide to bring his own son? Why is it unusual for an explorer to do this?
    3. How are Grann's and Fawcett's family lives similar? How are they different?
    4. Who do you think has the harder job: Fawcett in the jungle, or Nina at home? Why?

    Chew on This

    Fawcett doesn't have any sweet reason for leaving his family behind. He doesn't do it because he cares about them; he does it because he will only take the strongest people into the jungle with him, and his wife, daughter, and son Brian aren't the strongest. Tough luck, kids.

    A family can provide support, but it can also hold a man back. Grann may have continued his investigation into Fawcett's final resting place if he didn't have a family waiting for him at home.

  • Ambition

    We don't know what David Grann's favorite fragrance is, but if we had to guess, we'd say he douses himself with Calvin Klein's Obsession. Dude gets obsessed with everything; might as well smell like it.

    On the other hand, Percy Fawcett, Grann's subject in The Lost City of Z, would probably bathe himself in a healthy mix of Obsession, with a little Ambition thrown in for good measure. Yeah, we're thinking this dude would be just like someone wearing way too much Axe Body Spray, although maybe in the Amazon they call Axe by a different name: Machete.

    The point is that Fawcett oozes ambition. This guy is driven by a single-minded goal: to find Z, at all costs. Spoiler alert: he pays the ultimate price. Was it worth it?

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Why is Fawcett so ambitious? Would you characterize him as more ambitious or obsessed?
    2. What is Fawcett's ultimate goal? Does he share the same goal as his son Jack?
    3. Would you consider Grann ambitious? What does he hope to achieve? Does he reach his goal, or does he quit?

    Chew on This

    Anyone going into the jungle in Fawcett's time is ambitious. Exploring the Amazon is a high-risk endeavor with very little reward. These men must be intrinsically motivated to be successful, which suggests that they are searching for something within themselves, not necessarily something within the jungle.

    The difference between "ambition" and "obsession" is that ambition involves actual hard work, while obsession can be entirely mental. Fawcett is more ambitious than obsessed.

  • Strength and Skill

    Because there are so many jungle exploration video games—all the way back to Pitfall and up to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End—we often think of video games when thinking about The Lost City of Z. If Colonel Percy Fawcett were a video game character, we'd think he used some sort of cheat code to max out his stats. Our super colonel has high intelligence, rock solid defenses, and stamina that is off the charts. His incredible strength—mental and physical—allows him to get as far in the jungle as he does. But even he is unable to reach his ultimate goal. There must be a bug in the system: finding Z appears to be an unbeatable game.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. What is Fawcett's greatest strength? What does he have that other men lack?
    2. Is there one standard by which to measure strength when it comes to explorers of the Amazon? How do different explorers, like Dyott, measure strength?
    3. How does Fawcett's strength lend to his myth? Do you think people want to be as strong as Fawcett, and that's why they attempt the same journey?

    Chew on This

    Fawcett is so strong he is borderline invincible. But like Achilles, Fawcett has a weakness. His weakness is that his ambition goes unchecked: he keeps going and going until he literally goes off the map, never to return.

    David Grann isn't as strong as Percy Fawcett. No offense, Dave. Grann compensates for this with technology, using modern tools to make up for his weaknesses.