Rarely do I read a novel in less than 24 hours, but at 289 pages, Dragon Teeth is a quick, exciting, and informative read. It hooked me with its setting, its adventurous plot, and its historical fervour. Oh, and what a cover.
Dragon Teeth is the posthumously-published adventure novel of Michael Crichton who passed away on November 4, 2008 after battling cancer. He was only sixty-six years old. After reading about Crichton, I think the man was something of a genius.
Crichton always wanted to be a writer, but not a shadow-writer: a full-time make-a-living-from-writing writer. Fearing that wouldn’t happen, he opted to study at Harvard and graduated as a doctor in 1969. That didn’t stop him from writing though. In fact, he financed his studies at Harvard Medical School with his novels, and his first bestseller The Andromeda Strain was released as a film before he finished. Though he never practiced as a doctor, Crichton’s scientific and medical studies provided inspiration and experitise for many of his novels. He went on to become a director and filmmaker.
This is perhaps a forerunner to his famous Jurassic Park–dinosaurs and palaeontologists form the backbone. That a new Crichton novel can appear now, nine years after his death, is a kind of miracle. Like many writers, Crichton kept files, and this particular manuscript appeared complete. In an Entertainment Weekly article, Crichton’s widow, Sherri says:
“When I came across the Dragon Teeth manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale. Dragon Teeth was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.” Finding Dragon Teeth
The protagonist, William Johnson, is a rich, arrogant, and privileged young Yale student who loses a bet, and must, to save face, journey into the lawless West. It is the summer of 1876. Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors are retaliating against the white man for the loss of their Sacred Black Hills and warring with the Crow. General Custer has just made his last stand at the Little Bighorn. The buffalo have not yet been wiped out, but soon will be, in an effort to starve the Indians into submission or extinction. And out in the Montana Badlands, two rival paleotonogists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edmund Drinker Cope, are warring over dinosaur bones. All of this is historically researched.
“In 1876, scientific acceptance of dinosaurs was still fairly recent; at the turn of the century, men did not suspect the existence of these great reptiles at all, although the evidence was there to see” (107).
While scientists and creationists vehemently debate Darwin’s new theory of evolution, these two real-life paleontologists engage in “Bone Wars.” Along with Johnson, we journey from Philadelphia all the way to Deadwood. By train, stagecoach, and on horseback. Through city, mountain, desert, and on into the Badlands.
Johnson, who learns photography–because he has no other appreciable skills–hires on with the abrasive Marsh; then ends up with Cope, a natural teacher who instructs and entertains his crew with his knowledge of dinosaurs.
“Well, it seems you can see everything but the bones. Now: look in the middle of the cliff, for a cliff this high will have its Cretacious zone near the middle–a lower cliff, it might be nearer the top–but this one, it will be in the middle–just below that pink striation band there. Now run your eye along the band until you see a kind of roughness, see there? That oval patch there? Those are bones.”
In the Judith Badlands (Montana Territory), Cope discovers the fossilized teeth of a dinosaur larger than anything yet discovered and names it “Brontosaurus, ‘thunder lizard,’ because it must have thundered when it walked” (144). Hence the title.
One of the things I appreciate about this book is the historical narrator who interjects with relevant background. He seems objective; at least, more objective than a man in 1876 might be. He points out the racist and inhumane practices of the controversial Custer, and explains the background behind the Sioux War.
The federal government had signed a treaty with the Sioux in 1868, and as part of that treaty, the Dakota Sioux retained exclusive rights to the Black Hills, a landscape sacred to them…Yet one year after the treaty had been signed, the transcontinental railroads began service, providing access in days to land that could previously be reached only by weeks of difficult overland travel.
Even so, the Sioux lands might have been respected had not Custer discovered gold during a routine survey in the Black Hills in 1874. News of gold fields, coming in the midst of a nationwide recession, was irresisible.
Although forbidden by the government, prospectors sneaked into the sacred Black Hills. The army mountained expeditions in ’74 and ’75 to chase them out, and the Sioux killed them whenever they found them. But still the prospectors came in ever increasing numbers.
Believing the treaty had been broken, the Sioux went on the warpath. In May of 1876, the government ordered the army to quell the Sioux uprising (45).
It is into this arena that Johnson journeys with his rival paleontologists. The author uses Johnson’s fictional diaries to tell the tale of two real-life bone hunters. A ten-year rivalry collapses into one raucous summer. It is this melding of truth (if such a thing exists in the historical record) and tale that ensnares me and draws me into the man’s journey.
If you have a liking for westerns, for history, for adventurous tales, this book will capture you too.