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Book Review: 'Dragon Teeth' is a quick-paced adventure story set during one of paleontology's most infamous periods


Book Review: ‘Dragon Teeth’ is a quick-paced adventure story set during one of paleontology’s most infamous periods

Dragon Teeth, the latest novel by the deceased Michael Crichton (9 years now), is an adventure story that takes place amongst the backdrop of one of paleontology’s most infamous time periods, the Bone Wars. The Bone Wars was a historic feud between two paleontologists, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope that took place during the latter half of the 18th century. Cope and Marsh had such a vicious feud that it is unknown how many fossil specimens were actually destroyed in order to thwart the other’s attempt at getting the upper hand.

Book Review: 'Dragon Teeth' is a quick-paced adventure story set during one of paleontology's most infamous periods
Dragon Teeth
Writer: Michael Crichton
Page Count: 320
Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Dragon Teeth takes place in 1876 and follows a rich, but lazy, student William Johnson, at Yale University who ends up with a bet that he would never be able to survive a trip to the west. In response to the bet, Johnson declares that he was already involved with the expedition west led by Marsh, a professor at Yale. Despite his boast, Johnson had nothing to do with the expedition but he managed to weasel his way in by saying he was a photographer. After months of training to actually be a photographer, the expedition sets off for the west, without the participants having any real idea as to where they were going.

During the train ride to Cheyenne, Marsh becomes suspicious of Johnson, thinking that he is a spy for his nemesis Cope, since both Johnson and Cope come from Philadelphia. Eventually, Marsh abandons Johnson in Cheyenne and heads out on his expedition without him. Luckily, Johnson is then picked up by Cope that same morning and Johnson joins their team. Cope and company proceed to travel out into the Badlands of Montana, with the help of their cook, an Indian guide, and several other students.

What follows is a riveting story as Johnson, Cope, and co. venture into Indian Territory during the heart of the American Indian Wars. The expedition eventually comes across the titular “dragon teeth” of Brontosaurus, an animal of such immense size that it exceeds the imaginations of the animal’s discoverers. Preserving these bones then becomes of paramount importance and incredibly dangerous as Johnson encounters the Sioux Indians, some notorious figures of America’s West, and the infamous town of Deadwood.

Jim Lehane: There is a lot that happens in this book that a simple summary just could not cover. As a paleontologist myself, I am rather well acquainted with the Bone Wars, however I don’t know all of the minutiae involved with it. Dragon Teeth is presented as an elaboration of William Johnson’s journal. The journal, along with a set of photographs that show two very different versions of Johnson before and after the adventures in this novel, were introduced to us within the Introduction of this real life character who had interactions with a host of other historical figures. The novel then goes off to explain what happened between the two pictures. Rob, what is your background on the subject?

Robert Reed: I’m not a paleontologist, but the subject has always been of great interest to me. When I was younger, I wanted to pursue paleontology as a career, but (perhaps ironically) it was Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park that turned me towards filmmaking. Paleontology, however, still remains close to my heart and the feud between Cope and Marsh in particular has been a subject of interest for me for the past year. I was initially hesitant to read Crichton’s novel as I’ve been looking into how to fictionalize the historical events for my own purposes (fortunately, Crichton and I have different approaches and endgames).

Jim: Despite being set amidst the “Bone Wars”, the Bone Wars actually only encompass a fraction of the novel. Marsh is known for generally being a dick in real life and the novel portrays him as such, while Cope is portrayed as a nervous but smart individual, often the brunt of Marsh’s attacks and tactics. I was
actually surprised at the lack of paleontology in the novel itself. There is the mention of one dinosaur skeleton early in the novel in Marsh’s office, then nothing really until about 100 pages later when they start the excavations. There is a cool scene within the excavation of the bones where they needed to prevent the bones from breaking. Nowadays, paleontologist wrap bones in plaster jackets to protect them from breaking but in the late 1800’s they hadn’t come up with anything like that, so Cope’s crew boil down some rice until it was mush and use that as an infield plaster jacket. This is actually a technique that was used by Cope as mentioned by Sternberg in his real life account of the Bone Wars, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (he was also one of the assistants in the novel!).

Robert: That whole sequence is one of my favorite sequences in the novel. Crichton was extremely talented at mining the dramatic tension within scientific processes and making the fields of exploration exciting, even for laypeople.

Jim: One paleontology nitpick: despite being portrayed prominently on the cover of the book, Tyrannosaurus rex has nothing to do with the story, as many paleontologists could probably have figured out. The first partial T. rex skeleton wasn’t found until 1900. Cope did find vertebral fragments in 1892 (16 years after the novel takes place) that he named Manospondylus gigas, and were later reinterpreted as T. rex material. But again, it has nothing to do with this story. The cover was obviously chosen to be a harken back to the original Jurassic Park and The Lost World book covers by Crichton, however it has no place as an advertisement for this story.

I think one of the biggest surprises in novel was how quickly it turned from a paleontologist digging story into an old fashioned western story. Once Johnson goes back for the bones and is assaulted by the Sioux, it is a nonstop chase pretty much through the end of the book. Throughout the whole thing I’m sitting there going, “I can’t believe this actually happened”. You have several famous names coming and going throughout the story including Robert Luis Stevenson, Wild Bill Hickok (mentioned only), and Wyatt Earp, along with several famous western localities with an entire third of the novel set around Deadwood. The hook for me was that this was just an exaggeration of the real life adventures of a year in William Johnson’s life. But even though I am a paleontologist and I did enjoy the paleontological aspects of the story, when the story turned into a western was when I got hooked. The last half of the book was absolutely riveting for me. Again, I was sitting there in disbelief that this actually happened.

But alas we get to the end and (SUPER SPOILER WARNING) it’s pretty much all fake. The battle between Cope and Marsh was entirely real but the actual facts were jumbled up and to top it off, Johnson was a made up individual in its entirety. I’m not really sure how I feel about that. Crichton hooked me in the
opening introduction saying that he had two pictures of this guy Johnson and he wanted to tell the story about what happened between them. He made a really compelling argument about how this was a historical novel about a year in this guy’s life. But to then find out he made the whole thing up! I’m torn.

Yes, I loved the book but this afterward left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, like I was hoodwinked for the entire story. Rob, what were your feelings on the “Afterword surprise”?

Robert: I had the fortune of reading the author’s note and afterword first, so the fictitious nature of Johnson did not catch me off guard. Crichton uses Johnson well as a point-of- view for the audience, especially if one doesn’t know about paleontology or its history in the Old West. As Johnson becomes more attached to his work and the bones themselves, so do we. It’s a clever way to gain audience investment, especially since Marsh and Cope were already mid-obsession by the time the book takes place.

However, the knowledge that Johnson was not real did color my reading of the book, so when Crichton’s narrative became a western rather than a more scientific tale, part of me rolled my eyes and went along with it. The afterword by Crichton’s widow, Sherri Crichton, notes that the manuscript seems to trace itself back to 1974, which would have been only a year removed from Crichton’s film Westworld. In a way, Dragon Teeth feels like a newly discovered piece in the storytelling through-line between that film and Jurassic Park.

The last third of the book is a pretty drastic change in pace from the preceding pieces. What started off as a tense, but very human story about discovery and competition shifts towards an action story set in America’s West. Part of me questions how finished the manuscript was before Crichton’s death. It reads as very Crichton throughout its entirety, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not he would have taken another pass or two at it, further foreshadowing that genre change towards the end, as well as some of the characters that appear later in the novel.

Jim: Good point Rob, I was wondering how finished the novel was, especially since it seemed to be sitting on a shelf for nine years since his death, not to mention the 30+ years since he started the manuscript itself.

That being said, go ahead and read it. It’s a fast, quick paced, adventure story set during one of paleontology’s most infamous periods. Don’t expect this to be a historical novel giving you 100% accurate representation of the times but I actually really enjoyed the book, until the Afterword that is.

Robert: I have to echo Jim’s sentiment that this is a quick and entertaining read. For fans of Crichton, this should be a no-brainer, but the novel will appeal to anyone who is a fan of the Western genre as well.

Book Review: 'Dragon Teeth' is a quick-paced adventure story set during one of paleontology's most infamous periods
Book Review: ‘Dragon Teeth’ is a quick-paced adventure story set during one of paleontology’s most infamous periods
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