“We’d set out from Crowe at first light, and the grassland seemed endless. But after another few minutes, a crack appeared in the prairie. As we trotted closer, with every second the crack widened and deepened into a vast canyon that spread to the horizon.
A sunken world within our own. Water and glaciers and time had scooped it out, leaving behind a windy river and tall weathered buttes and mazes of ravines. The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers—tawny, black, gray, red—like the diagrams in Father’s geology books.”
Many reviewers have heard this novel described as Indiana Jones meets Romeo and Juliet, and that’s exactly what it is.
Professor Cartland and Professor Bolt feud like the Capulets and the Montagues. But these two American professors war over something brand new on the 19th century western frontier: dinosaur bones. Particularly the bones of what young Samuel Bolt likes to call the “rex.” When Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland, the teenaged offspring of the rival professors, fall in love, the race to find the rex gets even more complicated. YA Crossover Historical/Western Romance thing. Published October 11, 2016 by Simon and Schuster. Goodreads. Author Link.
I knew from reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne that I could easily love his work. His enthusiasm for the details is contagious and his prose is flawless. His novel Airborne lacks narrative drive and the character development that would have made it a spectacular read, for me; but I was still amazed by the details of the airships and all the research that went into portraying the luxury airliners. So when I saw Every Hidden Thing, I was immensely curious to see how Oppel had developed his writing.
Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland narrate the book. Samuel is a budding paleontologist hampered by his father’s reputation as a passionate but unschooled and impoverished “professor.” He knows they must travel to the Badlands to find the dinosaur of dinosaurs, which he dubs “tyrannosaurus rex,” in order to secure their fortunes and reputations.
Then he meets Rachel.
Rachel Cartland is a serious student of paleontology who dreams, above all, of getting a college degree and rising high in the field. She’s a tough girl who recognizes the possibilities that women should and don’t have, in the late 19th century. When she makes a risky but successful move, out in the field, her father reacts badly, and she thinks,
This was not the reaction I’d been hoping for. If I’d been a boy would he have praised me for my devotion, my initiative?”
But she never feels sorry for herself. She just pushes on to the next opportunity. She works hard to get to the Badlands with her father, and when they find one of the rex teeth, she becomes as determined as Samuel to find the prize.
Some reviewers are complaining that Rachel seems cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, I find Rachel the most compelling protagonist of the entire cast. YA often tries and miserably fails to portray the plain, but unusually bright teenage girl. Oppel pulls it off with a brainy first person narration, paired with the life experiences that would realistically go along with her characteristics. I think he imagined Rachel with fantastic precision.
The relationship between Rachel and Samuel brings them both to life, just as the rivalry brings their fathers to life. Rachel doesn’t drive the plot, the way Samuel does, but she does drive Samuel onward. Sam wants nothing so much as to be loved, and Rachel’s admiration and liking inspire him to man up, instead of letting his father run his life. I love their relationship so, so much, although it does get a little more, er, adult, than I would normally green light for a YA novel. It’s just done so well, though!
A few reviewers complained about the romance being “awkward,” and I’m pretty sure I know why. This book breaks all the YA romance stereotypes and I LOVE that about it. But not everyone will. It feels like a historical fiction romance…because that’s what it is. This is not an airbrushed romance because there is nothing discreet about an archaeological dig in the 19th century badlands. In addition, real relationships are hard and require communication; unlike this novel, the typical YA romance fails to accurately convey that reality.
I also love how Oppel brings a personal quality to every subject he examines. Samuel and his father are Quakers, and Oppel manages to share the heart of the Quaker faith while also showing the very fallible representatives humanity can be of faith. The book also takes our travelers straight into the territories of two Native American Plains tribes: Lakota Sioux and Pawnee. Oppel carefully portrays the multitude of confused perspectives on Natives during this time period, then personalizes the Natives and their problems.
Samuel on his pre-badlands experience with Natives:
I didn’t know much about Indians. The only one I’d ever seen, at a circus back home, turned out to be a man in face paint who was actually speaking Latvian.”
But later on, Samuel interacts with the Natives and gives their plight a lot of thought. After he and his crew narrowly survive an attack by an unspecified group of Natives, he offers the perspective,
We’d fight, too…if it were the other way around. Wouldn’t we?”
The Booklist review complains that the ending of the book “smacks of cultural appropriation,” but I love how the ending brings the Sioux mythology to life.
Other Stuff :
I did have two major complaints: (1) The beginning of this book really should tell readers when the book is set. The author’s note at the back helps, but teen readers may not check there and may not realize that the book is set during the late 19th century. (2) The plot involves a few major coincidences, related to finding the rex bones. Thankfully, the book really isn’t about the plot—it’s a very character-driven work.
Plot: 3 Stars
Setting: 5 Stars
Characters: 5 Stars
Writing: 5 Stars
The average of these scores is 4.5 stars, but I don’t care. I’m rounding up to five stars because this book deserves every single one. Not only does Oppel perfectly develop the characters and the dry hope of the American dream out West, he examines religious life and Natives with the same amount of care, all in the context of a gripping drama.
I’m going to recommend ages 16+ on this one, mostly because of the schmexy scenes (yes, there are multiple). [It explores the rocky beginning of a marriage. (hide spoiler)] But really…I loved this book. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and crossover YA. I already got a copy for my library!