Tag Archives: historical fiction

Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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It’s up to Theodore Roosevelt to save Queen Victoria

Steven Wilson, my pal and former boss at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, just published a new historical thriller.  Roosevelt’s Jubilee pits TR against a group of assassins in Victorian London:

Future president Theodore Roosevelt and his new wife, Edith, travel to London on their honeymoon in 1887. After a chance encounter with the Prince of Wales, they uncover a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. When the criminals kidnap Edith to use as leverage, Theodore teams up with Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard.

Roosevelt discovers that Abberline’s boss is one of the conspirators and that an Irish separatist group is behind the evil scheme. Roosevelt and Abberline learn that the would-be assassins are planning a deadly, explosive spectacle during the queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration in hopes of destroying the British monarchy.

Author Steven Wilson weaves fact and fiction together in this suspenseful historical novel set right before the turn of the century, when the British government is struggling to remain relevant. This is London just before Jack the Ripper terrorizes the city, as social classes battle and war looms on the horizon.

As Theodore and Edith discover, it’s a place where no one can be trusted and everyone has a second trick up his or her sleeve. And unless they can outwit the tricksters, the sun will be setting on the British Empire.

And while you’re at it, check out Steven’s earlier novels set on the high seas during World War II and the realm of Civil War espionage.

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A peek at the awesomeness coming in 2017

Hey, here’s a pleasant surprise!  USA Today has an excerpt from Dragon Teeth, the Bone Wars novel coming out next May by the late, great Michael Crichton.  Looks like the main character is a young man from a well-to-do Philadelphia family who joins the first big Gilded Age fossil rush.

The dust jacket looks pretty cool, although it’s a little odd to see a Tyrannosaurus on the cover of a novel set in the 1870s.  Some material now recognized as belonging to T. rex did turn up in the late 1800s, some of it discovered by fossil hunters involved in the Cope-Marsh feud.  In fact, Cope himself published a description of a couple of vertebrae from South Dakota that have since been identified as T. rex remains.  But the name Tyrannosaurus rex didn’t appear in the scientific literature until about thirty years after Cope and Marsh started duking it out.  No big deal, though—and not the first time Tyrannosaurus has made a somewhat chronologically-inappropriate appearance on the front of a Crichton novel.  After all, most editions of Jurassic Park featured a T. rex on the cover, even though the Jurassic Period ended almost eighty million years before the tyrant lizard king showed up.

While we’re on the subject of prehistoric beasties and awesome stuff coming out in 2017, have you seen the Kong: Skull Island trailer yet?  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’ve been a huge King Kong fan since I was about six.  (The fact that the ’33 film was chock full of dinosaurs might’ve had something to do with it.)   Maybe I should add a “Gratuitous Giant Ape Posts” category since I’m already subjecting you folks to periodic dino digressions.

The movie’s set in the Godzilla universe, and this ginormous, bipedal Kong seems to have more in common with the Toho version than the old school one that climbed the Empire State Building with a blonde in his hand.  Me, I prefer the original take on Kong, and I’m disappointed by the lack of dinosaurs in the trailer, but this is still my most anticipated movie of 2017.

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A Crichton novel on the Bone Wars is coming

I’d like to apologize for that ear-piercing noise that shattered windows all over the Western Hemisphere last night.  That was me shrieking with ecstatic delight in reaction to this:

HarperCollins Publishers has acquired World English rights to DRAGON TEETH by bestselling author Michael Crichton. Harper Publisher Jonathan Burnham and Executive Editor Jennifer Barth negotiated the deal with CrichtonSun’s Sherri Crichton through Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel of ICM Partners and Michael S. Sherman of Reed Smith LLP. The book will be published in May 2017 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Michael Crichton’s DRAGON TEETH follows the notorious rivalry between real-life paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during a time of intense fossil speculation and discovery in the American West in 1878. The story unfolds through the adventures of a young fictional character named William Johnson who is apprenticed first to one, then to the other and not only makes discoveries of historic proportion, but transforms into an inspiring hero only Crichton could have imagined. Known for his meticulous research, Crichton uses Marsh and Copes’ heated competition during the ‘Bone Wars,’ the golden age of American fossil hunting, as the basis for a thrilling story set in the wilds of the American West.

Sherri Crichton has been working to honor her late husband by creating the Michael Crichton Archives through her company CrichtonSun. “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.” She traced its genesis back to correspondence between Crichton and Professor Edwin H. Colbert, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “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.”

The “Bone Wars”—the bitter feud between rival naturalists Edward Cope and O.C.Marsh—pretty much defined vertebrate paleontology in the United States during the late nineteenth century.  As ugly as the Cope-Marsh spat was, it played a large role in bringing to light the fossil riches of the American West, since the two men financed prospecting and excavation in some of the country’s most important bone beds.  A lot of the “classic” dinosaurs that are household names first came to scientific attention in the papers they published.  Their rivalry has fascinated me since I was a kid; in fact, when I was an undergrad, I did my capstone research project on it.

Anyway, it’s Crichton. It’s dinosaurs. It’s American history.  As they used to say in the beer commercials, “Boys, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

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Novel approach to King’s Mountain

I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it.  The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer.  McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework. 

The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups.  McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition.  At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.  Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir.  Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it.  It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources.  (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book.  I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)

When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy.  Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.

These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle.  If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it.  McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling.  We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own.  Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.

It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region.  This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

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Some King’s Mountain book news

Sharyn McCrumb is taking on my favorite historical subject for her next novel.  Looks pretty cool!

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In book news…

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.

The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.

Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July.  I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.

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