Saturday, October 29, 2016

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Every Hidden Thing is based on the the decades long feud between American two paleontologists, Edward Drinkwater Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh which took place in the middle of the 19th century. Their feud which became known as the "Bone Wars" saw both men attempt to outwit the other in the hunt for dinosaur fossils in the American Midwest. Their rivalry new no bounds and lasted until Cope's death in 1897. Canadian author Kenneth Oppel has used Marsh and Cope's rivalry as the basis for his story in Every Hidden Thing.

The story begins with Samuel Bolt's father, Professor Michael Bolt presenting his latest find at a meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Bolt is a gentleman scientist without a university education but well respected as a self-taught paleontologist. Professor Bolt was the second to discover a dinosaur in America - a partial skeleton but enough that he could name it.

Also in attendance at this meeting is Professor Cartland from Yale. The self-taught Bolt is seen as an amateur by Cartland whose connections to Yale give him important status. It is at this meeting that Samuel meets the homely but highly intelligent Rachel Cartland, Professor Cartland's daughter, whom he finds most captivating. They spend a short time conversing, neither aware that the other is the child of their father's rival.

Bolt had been sent crates of bones by a dentist, Dr. Hawthorn of Kansas. From these bones, Bolt was able to reconstruct a skeleton of a large sea creature he named Elasmosaurus. However, during his presentation, Cartland informs Bolt and the audience that Bolt has erred in his reconstruction of the creature. He has placed the head of the Elasmosaurus on the wrong end, mistaking the long length of vertebrae as the tail when in fact it is the neck. Cartland picks up the skull and clicks it into place on the other end of the skeleton stating, "Which would indicate to me, Professor Bolt, that the tail is in fact the neck, and you have built your dinosaur backward, sir." This outrage leads to the two men brawling at the meeting.

The next morning Samuel discovers an unopened crate in his father's office. In the crate, Samuel and his father find the largest tooth they have ever seen as well as a note written nine weeks earlier by a fossil hunter named Edward (Ned) Plaskett. Plaskett writes that he located the large tooth northeast of Fort Crowe and is offering his services to help find the rest of the fossil. Samuel's father determines that a creature with such a large tooth would be bipedal and "of some fifty feet in length, whose height measured from the ground, would be in the area of thirty feet." Samuel believing this would be the king of dinosaurs leads his father to partially name it rex.

Professor Bolt wants to simply telegraph Plaskett that he is hired but Samuel argues they should travel to Fort Crowe to find the rex themselves. However, lack of money is a huge problem because Samuel's father has used up all the capital from the sale of his inheritance. Samuel takes the initiative and at a Quaker's meeting tells the men he feels called to find God's creatures buried in the ground. The men take up a collection and raise enough for the Bolts to launch an expedition.

Meanwhile Professor Cartland and Rachel are on their summer expedition to the Western Territories. The Cartlands will have an army escort, twelve paying Yale students as well as free rail passes from Union Pacific. At first Professor Cartland decided that Rachel would stay in New Haven with her Aunt Berton attending picnics, church socials and a debutante ball. Rachel wanted none of it; she wants to attend university and hunt fossils and the expedition offers her a chance to work towards that goal. When she's sent to her aunt, Rachel releases a snake in her aunt's bed and is sent home. With her father having no other alternative, Rachel joins him on the expedition.

Unbelievably Samuel and Rachel meet up at Omaha Station to take the Union Pacific train heading out west, although neither party knows the exact destination of the other. Samuel continues to be completely enamored with Rachel. Their fathers set them both to spying on one another to try to determine their plans.  One of the Yale students appears to reveal to Professor Bolt that the Cartland's expedition is traveling to North Platte. This leads Samuel to tell Rachel about the tooth they have been sent by Plaskett. However the Bolts soon discover that the Cartland's destination is the same when they get off the train in Crowe. To the frustration of the Bolts they discover that Cartland has bought up almost all the supplies. When they finally meet up with Plaskett, his rough appearance at first worries Professor Bolt but he is determined to help them get to the badlands. While the Cartland's are burdened with their thirty soldiers and the Yale students, Samuel and his father along with Plaskett and a driver named Hitch Powers set out for the badlands. Samuel and his father set up camp and begin exploring. But when Bolt discovers Cartland's expedition camped on the banks of the nearby river, he is furious and confronts Cartland. The two men agree that whoever finds a bone first owns the site which will be staked with a flag. The two men race to find the rex of dinosaurs against the backdrop of hostile Indians bent on recovering what was stolen from them. Meanwhile, Samuel and Rachel become increasingly infatuated with one another, leading them to make an outlandish choice to control their own destinies.


Every Hidden Thing is a story loosely based on the intense rivalry between two American paleontologists in the mid to late 19th century. In the novel the rivalry is between two fictitious paleontologists, Professor Bolt and Professor Cartland, who are also loosely based on the real paleontologists, Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh. Other than their determination to find dinosaur fossils before the other and to quickly name them, Oppel's story is very much different. In the novel Professor Bolt's son Samuel is portrayed as having discovered the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton after having a vision resulting from a rattlesnake bite. In fact, both Cope and Marsh did discover pieces of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the late 1890's but these pieces were not identified until much later in the 20th century. Although Cope married and had a child, Marsh never did.

Instead Oppel re-imagines the feud from the point of view of the two paleontologists' teenage children who form an alliance and eventually run off to get married. Samuel and Rachel share the storytelling in alternating narratives. The main strength of Oppel's story is the characters who are well drawn. Professor Bolt is described as a man who isn't "afraid to talk with his fists." Samuel describes his father as having a deranged look about him due to "his left eye had a slightly awkward angle to it..." Compared to Cartland, Bolt is a man with a bit more integrity who is deeply angered by Cartland's dishonest methods to obtain fossils. He appears more willing to respect the Indians than his rival.

Cartland is the most vile of the characters, stealing from just about anyone he can. He is described as short and "solid as a potbellied stove" with "sparse hair" and a mustache.  Rachel mentions that her father has a "rather unfortunate verbal tic of saying 'yes yes' in the midst of his sentences. And it rarely meant he agreed with you." He doesn't support Rachel's ambition to attend university and become a scientist. He's bought off his rivals so they can supply him with information on fossil finds and has blocked Bolt's papers from being published. Cartland shows profound disrespect for the indigenous people of the plains when he desecrates an Indian burial site, chopping the heads off the bodies to take back for research. Thoroughly in a rage when he discovers his daughter has married Samuel Bolt, Cartland attempts to kidnap his daughter.

Samuel is portrayed as an awkward teen definitely not comfortable with his changing body. He is determined to make Rachel both trust and like him so he tells her about the large tooth fossil.  Rachel describes Samuel as being "tall, with a mop of wavy, coarse hair. He looked like one of those puppies that hadn't grown into its body yet but gave all the signs of its full size to come..." Samuel sees Rachel as a potential wife and partner, working together to hunt fossils and do research but he's confused by her lack of feeling towards him.

Rachel is not considered attractive and she knows it, often focusing on how she is rarely complimented about her appearance. "But without a mother I was never told I had lovely hair or a pleasing figure or striking eyebrows..." Samuel's compliment that she has "the most extraordinary eyes." make her feel special. She's also described by Samuel as being unromantic, "She was like a fortress. Impenetrable."  Rachel is determined to attend university even marrying Samuel in the hopes of achieving this goal despite not wanting to marry.

Having a background in geology, this novel initially seemed very intriguing. However as the story progressed I found Samuel's description of how his body responds to Rachel  offputting. Samuel Bolt unabashedly narrates what happens to his body in a way that most readers really don't want to know. When he first meets Rachel Cartland, despite her being somewhat unattractive Samuel narrates how he becomes aroused. Why we have to know this I'm not sure. When the two elope and end up in a hotel room on their wedding night, the reader is subjected to a three page detailed account of their struggles and awkwardness, again probably something most teens really don't want to read about. Their blossoming romance in spite of the violent rivalry between their fathers plays on the much used Romeo and Juliet trope.

In contrast, Oppel's descriptions of the badlands welcome and colourful. "The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers -- tawny, black, gray, red -- like the diagrams in Father's geology books...Some of the stepped buttes looked like Mayan temples. There were gaunt castles. Archways and spires of a great Gothic cathedral..." When they arrive in the badlands Samuel narrates, "It was surprisingly lush along the brown, slow-curving river lined with cottonwoods and tall grass and flowers. In the sun's low evening light, the stone was rich yellow and peach and purple. The wind made a pleasant dry rustle in the cottonwoods." The ravines are described with equal eloquence: "The ground was scattered with rocks of all shapes and sizes, gray basalt and pink granite and yellowy limestone and great speckled silver hunks and creamy pebbles, all broken and crushed by glaciers and rounded and smoothed by rivers over thousands of years. There were green sage and spiky cactus and clumps of perfectly spherical deer droppings."

I'd love to recommend this novel which would probably be of interest to younger teens but I feel Samuel's wedding night narrative and the whole elopement subplot really distracts from the overall story. If you are interested in Tyrannosaurus rex and the rivalry between Cope and Marsh check out the resources listed below and spare yourself the unsavory descriptions that mar what would otherwise have been a really good novel. Hopefully another author will make an attempt to portray this interesting rivalry in a way that will be more informative and less sensational than Every Hidden Thing.

Paleontology: The Truth About T. Rex

This talk is about Tyrannosaurus rex held at Alberta's Tyrell Museum.

You can learn much more about the real Bone Wars by watching the short documentary, Dinosaur Wars on the PBS show, American Experience. The PBS website has detailed information on the rivalry between Cope and Marsh as well as information about viewing the documentary.

Book Details:

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.    2016
361 pp.

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