Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!
I’ve been a fan of Michael Crichton’s novels since childhood. As a kid, I was always reading well above my grade level, and by the time I was around eleven or twelve years old, I had already read Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Congo. I even tried my hand at writing my own dinosaur stories based on Jurassic Park.
Since Crichton’s untimely death in 2008, several of his unpublished novels have been released; and while I unfortunately haven’t yet had the chance to read Pirate Latitudes or Micro, I was extremely excited in the lead-up to the release of Dragon Teeth. We get to experience a new Michael Crichton novel involving dinosaurs (or, in this case, their fossilized bones). You can’t go wrong with that!
While Crichton is best known for his sci-fi techno-thrillers, he also wrote several works of historical fiction, including The Great Train Robbery, and the aforementioned Pirate Latitudes. In Dragon Teeth, we have a welcomed return to that genre.
Dragon Teeth is set in the 1870s during a frenzied period of early American paleontology known as “The Bone Wars,” due to the intensely personal and bitter feud of two rival paleontologists: Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. The American West at that time was still very much wild, and in some places lawless. The Indian Wars were still raging across the Great Plains, and cutthroat bandits laid in wait for unwary travelers. Rather than focus on the larger-than-life figures of Cope and Marsh, Dragon Teeth revolves around the adventures of the William Johnson (an entirely fictitious character) who is an entitled and indolent freshman at Yale College. Attempting to win a bet and prove himself to his peers, Johnson signs on with Professor Marsh’s summer 1876 expedition to the rich fossil hunting grounds west of the Mississippi.
However, the eccentric and ever-paranoid Marsh soon suspects Johnson of being a spy for his arch-nemesis E.D. Cope, and ditches our young hero in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, Johnson has a chance encounter with Cope himself, an indefatigable, seemingly affable academic with a surprisingly explosive temper. Johnson soon finds himself travelling with Cope and his crew to the Judith River badlands of Montana to dig for dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, the Cope party faces dangers both behind, and ahead. They are constantly shadowed by Marsh and his agents, who seek to impede and sabotage their progress by any means necessary. They are also marching directly into a war zone. They will be prospecting in the heart of Indian territory mere weeks after Custer’s 7th Cavalry was annihilated by the Sioux at Little Big Horn.
William Johnson is a likable, relatable hero. I really enjoyed his arc over the course of the novel. At its heart, Dragon Teeth is essentially a classic coming-of-age tale. Persevering through many hardships and harrowing adventures, Johnson matures from a privileged, directionless adolescent, into hardened adulthood. He quite literally wears the scars of his frontier experiences. In fact, I was quite pleased to find many thematic similarities (surely unintentional) between Dragon Teeth and one of my favorite novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They’re essentially the same kind of story. Bilbo Baggins is also unexpectedly thrust from his life of quiet comfort, into a harsh and often dangerous world. Over the course of his journey “there and back again” Bilbo overcomes many obstacles and endures great trials, discovering inner strength, courage, and resilience he never knew he possessed. Ultimately, Bilbo returns home as a person changed for the better.
Dragon Teeth is written mostly in the third person, with occasional excerpts from Johnson’s journals spicing up the narrative. I felt while reading that I might have enjoyed the story even more if Crichton had chosen to write it entirely from a first person view, in Johnson’s voice.
I was surprised by how short many of the chapters were, some being only a couple of pages long. At first, I was worried that this would make the book seem rushed or unfinished. Instead, I think it balanced out as a positive, making for a brisk, page-turning reading experience. The book was hard to put down, and I constantly found myself saying “Just one more chapter…”
As per usual for Crichton, there are various asides in which he explains the historical context of unfolding events: The Indian Wars, the expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the growing public debate over Darwin’s newly published theories about evolution. The antics of Cope and Marsh are delightfully crazy, and, of course, Crichton takes quite a bit of creative license with the actual historical persons and events (though, more on that later). Marsh is pretty much portrayed as a villain, and Cope in a more sympathetic light. The real-life feud between Cope and Marsh was a bit more complicated, nuanced, and nasty than described here, but for narrative purposes, it works well enough and I could mostly overlook it.
By the halfway point, the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Johnson is separated from the rest of the Cope party during an Indian attack, and finds himself stranded with several crates of priceless fossils in the notorious mining town of Deadwood in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. At this point, Johnson’s story transforms into a pretty standard Western, with all the associated tropes, such as the naïve young Easterner who must survive in a lawless frontier town populated by cutthroats and desperados. Paleontology and the Bone Wars take a back seat for a good part of the latter half of the book. At this point, I was afraid that I would completely lose interest in the story. Fortunately, the Deadwood interlude had enough excitement, suspense, and colorful (if a bit clichéd) characters to keep me reading. I really felt for Johnson in his predicament. I wanted to see him escape Deadwood alive and make it home with Cope’s fossils intact. I think that this speaks volumes about Crichton’s ability to craft a compelling protagonist.
The most glaring historical/scientific inaccuracy in the novel involves the fossils that Johnson must protect while in Deadwood: The titular “Dragon Teeth.” It’s Johnson who uncovers these fossil teeth, described as being about the size of one’s fist, with multiple, intricate cusps. From the size of the teeth alone, Cope extrapolates that they came from the largest dinosaur yet discovered, which he promptly names Brontosaurus, the “thunder lizard.” As a dinosaur nerd, this left me scratching my head. The historical record clearly establishes that Brontosaurus (which may or may not be the same animal as Apatosaurus) was discovered by Marsh. Furthermore, Brontosaurus and its kin, the familiar, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs known as sauropods, had very tiny heads relative to their immense body-sizes. Consequently, their teeth were small, peg-like affairs, nothing at all like how Crichton describes them. I’m frankly surprised that Crichton, a writer known for his meticulous research into technical subjects, could have made such an elementary error. This wouldn’t have been difficult information to look up, even before the internet. I might have been able to let the matter go, but the “brontosaur teeth” end up becoming a major plot device throughout the back half of the novel. But, while this certainly irritated me as a dinosaur nerd, it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of the novel by any means.
The ending of the novel also left me with some mixed feelings. There is a twist in one of the last few scenes, where a supporting character is revealed to be more than who they seem. I don’t think that this twist was handled very well, as it left me with many more questions than answers.
Despite these few quibbles, if you’re a Michael Crichton fan, I’d say you should definitely give Dragon Teeth a read. It may be different from many of Crichton’s other novels, but it has his indelible stamp. Even if you’re just interested in American history, or if you like historical fiction, especially Westerns, I think you’ll find Dragon Teeth to be an enjoyable summer read. Veteran Crichton fans will get exactly what they’re looking for. And if you’ve never read a Michael Crichton book before, Dragon Teeth is a great place to start.
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