Reviewed by Jed R. Cruz
DRAGON TEETH By Michael Crichton 304 pp. Harper.
Dragon Teeth’s book cover looks suspiciously like another more well-known Michael Crichton novel: his name is displayed prominently with a silhouette of what’s clearly a dinosaur skull. This reviewer wouldn’t fault anyone for assuming that Dragon Teeth is the next chapter in the tale started by Jurassic Park—until, of course, they notice the tiny cowboy perched on top of the skull, transforming the bone ridges into a Marlboro-esque prairie of a landscape.
Dragon Teeth is truly about that cowboy and his world: the American West after the Civil War and just five minutes before the sweeping influence of the industrial revolution would stamp out most traces of wild out of the west. The protagonist is William Johnson, a city-dwelling college student from Philadelphia who unwittingly makes a bet that catapults him out into the frontier as a photographer covering an expedition seeking dinosaur fossils.
It is made clear by the author that William Johnson is purely a fictitious character, although throughout his journey, he meets real-life historical figures both well-known and obscure with surprising and amusing regularity. It’s a grand and colorful setting, and one that Crichton describes with confidence and delight. Dragon Teeth is clearly a Western, with lawless towns, saloons full of scoundrels, Indians of various tribes (both friendly and hostile), and stagecoach chases, but it is also a story about science and the lengths that some people would go to in order to explore it, or master it, or exploit it. Johnson’s transformation from pampered student to seasoned adventurer happens gradually and believably, although the characters that he meets and travels with are less fleshed out and seem caricatured in comparison.
Perhaps this is a consequence of the novel’s historical trappings, as an early driving force behind the plot is the true-to-life rivalry between two notable paleontologists of the time. Writing characters who actually existed could be constricting in many ways.
Of particular interest are the journal entries told from various points of view that pepper the narrative: Crichton writes that many of these are taken from never-before-published real-life entries of some of the people that appear in his story. Watching fiction and historical fact meld together is fascinating. Trying to find the seams to tell them apart is even more so.
Ultimately, Dragon Teeth is a small, personal journey through an enormous time and place—a journey that simply allows glimpses and snippets of grander things happening along the fringes of the novel’s framing. Johnson’s tale happens in the space of a few months from 1875 to 1876, but because of the threads of other historical events drifting in and out of the narrative, it ends up bigger and more realized than just one year of hammering rocks out in the badlands.
It is a stronger story for all of those elements. Adventure fans, Western fans, and anyone interested in American history will find a lot to enjoy in Dragon Teeth.
Get a copy of Dragon Teeth online.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]