Published: October 11th, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers | Series: N/A | Length: 368 pages | Genre: YA, romance, historical fiction | Source: Borrowed from the library | Possible Triggers: Sexism, anti-Native racism, dead bodies, decapitation
Summary from Goodreads:
Somewhere in the Badlands, embedded deep in centuries-buried rock and sand, lies the skeleton of a massive dinosaur, larger than anything the late nineteenth-century world has ever seen. Some legends call it the Black Beauty, with its bones as black as ebony, but to seventeen-year-old Samuel Bolt, it’s the “rex,” the king dinosaur that could put him and his struggling, temperamental archaeologist father in the history books (and conveniently make his father forget he’s been kicked out of school), if they can just quarry it out.
But Samuel and his father aren’t the only ones after the rex. For Rachel Cartland this find could be her ticket to a different life, one where her loves of science and adventure aren’t just relegated to books and sitting rooms. And if she can’t prove herself on this expedition with her professor father, the only adventures she may have to look forward to are marriage or spinsterhood.
As their paths cross and the rivalry between their fathers becomes more intense, Samuel and Rachel are pushed closer together. Their flourishing romance is one that will never be allowed. And with both eyeing the same prize, it’s a romance that seems destined for failure. As their attraction deepens, danger looms on the other side of the hills, causing everyone’s secrets to come to light and forcing Samuel and Rachel to make a decision. Can they join forces to find their quarry, and with it a new life together, or will old enmities and prejudices keep them from both the rex and each other?
I don’t know where to start with this review. The first half of this book was horrible. I didn’t enjoy it at all and honestly thought about DNFing – which I never do. Part of me feels like the second half of the book made up for it, but I still feel that it wasn’t enough to truly redeem the book.
The first thing that put me off this book was the sexism. Although one of the overarching themes of the book is Rachel’s dedication to science and her determination to prove that women could be just as successful intellectually and scientifically as men, there were subtle forms of sexism that appeared and made it difficult for me to enjoy the book. Throughout the book, it is continuously emphasized how “plain” Rachel was and how extraordinary it was that Samuel was interested in such a plain girl. And this was shown in both Rachel and Samuel’s narration. Samuel was pretty self-congratulatory that he, a very handsome boy, would be interested in Rachel, a girl who isn’t pretty and doesn’t seem interested in socializing with him or anyone else. And Rachel kept emphasizing how, as much as she liked the attention from this handsome boy, she couldn’t understand why anyone would ever be interested in her, continuously questioning his motives and talking down about herself. This was introduced literally in the first scene of the book – and never truly went away either. I really did not enjoy it and I found it incredibly exhausting to keep reading about.
I have incredibly mixed feelings about the anti-Native racism that was in this book. On the one hand, this is a historical novel and it’d be pretty inaccurate to show Natives as being treated and thought of as equals (especially since even today this isn’t the case). On the other, I’m not convinced that this needed to be included in order to write a compelling story about paleontology and I felt since it was included, it should have been thoroughly challenged in the text and I’m not sure that it was. First of all, the first time the Sioux are called “savages” – which is an offensive term that has historically been used to justify the oppression and genocide of Native Americans – it goes completely unchallenged. No one in the book says “hey, it’s wrong to call people savages” which is a problem for a book that is written for modern teens. As the story goes on, these instances of racism generally are challenged by Rachel, who points out that she can empathize with Natives being treated horribly, since she has also struggled with making people see her as an equal. I appreciated this (although I’m not convinced white women have ever been treated as horribly as Native Americans), but still didn’t feel that it was enough, especially considering that Rachel herself disrespects the Sioux by stealing an artifact from the dead body of a Sioux man. And even though she feels guilty, it’s ultimately forgiven because “what paleontologist wouldn’t have taken it?” There were some lines thrown in about how white Americans violated treaties and things like that and, again, I appreciated that Oppel attempted to educate his readers about the harm and reality of anti-Native racism but I’m still not convinced he did it properly. Natives were also often depicted as violent except for the “good Natives” who were helping the white people. I just don’t feel the author did a good job balancing historical accuracy with non-offensive portrayals of Native Americans. And the whole thing caught me off guard since there’s absolutely no mention of Native Americans in the synopsis and I didn’t realize they would play such a big role in the book. Of course, I’m white so I’m not the best person to turn to for opinions on this, but I didn’t feel right writing a review for the book and not mentioning this.
The characters fell flat for me throughout most of the book. I finally started to feel a little invested once Rachel and Samuel were making plans for their future and not just meeting in secret (trying to be kind of vague here to avoid spoilers), but I never really felt strongly about them. Both of their fathers were horribly annoying too, acting more like 10-year-olds than grown adults (although apparently their feud was based on a real-life feud which is kind of cool).
Pretty much the only things I really liked about this book were the paleontology elements and the ending. The last 50 pages or so had a lot that happened and I actually found myself enjoying that part of the book, compared to the rest of the book where I was just not into it. The paleontology elements are what make this book a two-star read for me, since I loved seeing what it might have been like to be someone discovering all these dinosaur species for the first time and to be searching for and digging up fossils before we had a lot of the modern technology that makes it much easier to extract fossils without breaking them, missing pieces, etc.
Unfortunately, this book was a pretty big disappointment for me. As much as I enjoyed the paleontology aspects of it (which is why I picked up the book in the first place), the subtle sexism and not-so-subtle racism (which Oppel tried – in my opinion, unsuccessfully – to challenge), combined with flat characters made this pretty unenjoyable for me. If you’re a die-hard paleontology or historical fiction fan, you might enjoy this, but otherwise, you could probably skip this one.