(Michael Chrichton, Harper/Collins, 2017)
The year 1876 was notable for several events, including the celebration of the 100th birthday of the United States at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and for the defeat of General Custer after his unfortunate decision to attack an Indian encampment that summer. Readers are probably aware of those events, but who knows about the Bone Wars of the 1870’s?
I learned about this historic rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the fiction book, Dragon Bones by Michael Crichton, published posthumously last year.
He tells the story through the eyes of a fictional Yale student, William Johnson, who signs up to go west with Professor Marsh.
The rich and spoiled 18-year-old goes because of a bet with a fellow student, not because he has any interest in either fossils or the West. On the train to Cheyenne, he learns the paranoia Professor Marsh feels against Cope.
This was the golden age of fossil hunting, where ground-breaking discoveries were literally being dug up in the West. The men were competing with each other to find and identify the new creatures.
Their fierce, bitter, and public rivalry became known as the Bone Wars.
Readers may check Wikipedia for a long article about the bone wars and will find that Crichton’s story follows the facts.
Marsh suspects Johnson of being a spy for Cope and ditches Johnson in Cheyenne. Johnson then apprentices himself to Cope, who takes him out to the Judith, where they camp for the summer and dig fossils.
Along with the dangers and discomforts, they unearth a major discovery, brontosaurus teeth. The story continues the tale of Johnson’s adventures bringing them back to the States with all the surprises and plot twists one would expect from Crichton.
Crichton’s wife, Sherri, discovered the manuscript on her husband’s computer. “It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research, and science, all dynamically woven into and epic tale,” she notes on the website.
Michael Crichton (1942-2008) is a New York Times bestselling author of The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park and many others.
Jurassic Park readers and movie fans will enjoy Crichton’s return to paleontology in Dragon Teeth.