Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster, 2016.
I’m a big fan of Kenneth Oppel’s and have reviewed several of his books here, including my first ever bibliobrit review. He is able to move comfortably between genres and age groups, and still write consistently excellent novels.
Every Hidden Thing is an engrossing and fast-moving historical YA adventure, set in the time of the “Bone Wars” aka the “Great Dinosaur Rush” of the late 19th century, when rival paleontologists raced to dig up fossils in the West, newly opened by the transcontinental railroad.
The two teen narrators, Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland, are the children of rival paleontologists, and aspiring paleontologists themselves. The Bolts are charismatic, emotional, and on the fringes of the establishment; by contrast, the Cartlands are meticulous, academic, and highly respected. As these two set out to Wyoming with their teams – the Bolts running on desperation and ambition, and the Cartlands highly organized, well-funded, and prepared – they are both searching for the Black Beauty, a giant carnivorous dinosaur whose tooth has been uncovered.
Based on real life rivals, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, the two fathers indulge in all sorts of underhand and nefarious behavior to slow down or divert the other. But, would you believe it, Sam and Rachel fall in love, and plot to find the Black Beauty for themselves. The plot rattles along with the race to uncover and name new dinosaurs, and all the while the search for the big rex is on.
The star-crossed lovers are well-drawn, differentiated characters. Rachel, in particular, stands out as a girl trying to make her way in a time in which women were expected to do little except get married and have children. She is the only female character and having been brought up by her father alone, has been rather more involved with his work than would be typical (Sam is also motherless). Her rationality battles with her attraction to Sam, who is all quick flaring hot emotions and impulsiveness. In the ARC I read, the switch between narrators is not indicated, and though at first I found this challenging, the clear differentiation of the two, along with well-placed clues made it quite easy to spot the change.
Because of its setting, the novel includes many references to Native Americans. The tooth of the giant dinosaur was originally discovered by a Sioux boy, and his son is essential to the discovery of the rest of the bones. Along the way, Rachel and Sam discuss the position of the Native people as white people move into the West and uncover its riches. Both fathers are portrayed as having attitudes of their time and Cartland, in particular, is horrific; their offspring, however, have a much more modern sensibility, though sometimes only in thought not action. Debbie Reese has not yet pronounced on this book, however, so though it seems to me to offer reasonable portraits of Native Americans and includes sharp criticism of contemporary attitudes, I’ll let you know.
This is a sound and exciting tale about a time of great social and scientific upheaval, and Mr Oppel does a terrific job of showing that without being didactic. In some ways, this reminds me of both The Boundless and Matthew J. Kirby’s Lost Kingdom, and though it doesn’t have the fantasy element of either of those books, I think it will appeal to readers who have enjoyed them as well as other more straightforward historical novels.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the ARC.