“I’ll tell you a story — and some of it’s true —
that explores and explains
what the Bone-Hunters do.”
You’re probably already familiar with the Bone Wars, or the Great Dinosaur Rush, but you won’t have seen this real-life rivalry between two prolific 19th century palaeontologists portrayed quite like this before. Based loosely on historical events, this fanciful version of proceedings, written by Ted Enik, sees both parties in the ‘war’ inventing dinosaur species by the dozen. So, how come I’m reviewing it here? Well, the link may be tenuous, but a plesiosaur makes an appearance at the beginning and end of the book, and that’s all I required to give in to curiosity…
The book opens with a factual introduction that sets the scene, after which, the story takes the form of an engaging Dr Seuss-like poem. The rhyming, rhythmical text is snappy and funny, and at 33 pages long this is a sizeable volume. The story is supplemented on every page with charming stylistic artwork by G.F. Newland. For example, in a preface to the book, we see our plesiosaur restored, and in another early scene, we see our plesiosaur skeleton being unearthed. There’s a passing resemblance of the two main protagonists to their real-world counterparts, O.C. March and E.D Cope, which is surely no coincidence.
Enik states up front that this is a whimsical “take” on events, though it isn’t stated explicitly what is and isn’t made up, so it might be worth saying a few words here to tease out fact from fiction. The story starts off steeped in reality. Our protagonists really did exist, as did the Bone Wars, and the two palaeontologists went to great lengths to outdo each other, as described in the book. However, after this early set up, the story quickly goes off the rails in terms of factual accuracy! While Cope and Marsh might have been liberal when erecting new species, they never made up species out of pure cloth, as happens in Enik’s story. Obviously, Cope did not describe a “NeverTopThisOne-Ginormous-asaurus”, nor did March announce a “WhoAreYouKidding?-Extravaga-saurus”. However, I’ve taken these suggestions on board as possibilities if I ever have an opportunity to name another new species of prehistoric reptile myself! Also, to my knowledge, neither palaeontologist ever used mechanical arms in their digs, though it is a good idea!
The plesiosaur that makes an appearance is, of course, Elasmosaurus, which was pivotal in the real-world Bone Wars. Elasmosaurus was originally reconstructed wrongly by Cope in 1868 with the head on the end of the tail. Despite scrambling to recall all preprints, and despite successfully replacing the erroneous reconstruction with a more accurate one with the head on the right end of the vertebral column, it was all in vain. According to lore, Marsh became aware of the mistake, and swiftly proceeded to place Cope in a headlock and deploy a bout of ‘noogies’ lasting the rest of Cope’s life. Not true (well, perhaps metaphorically so), but Marsh did repeatedly make the most of Cope’s blunder, using it as ammunition in their rivalry and mocking Cope and his “incompetence” at every opportunity. This served to fuel the animosity between the two men, which Jane P. Davidson (2002) has described as “not only a professional rivalry but a genuine hatred of one another”. The story of the Elasmosaurus is so rich and peculiar that I was surprised Enik didn’t make more of it in Sticks ‘n’ Stones. The Elasmosaurus in Enik’s fictional tale is more incidental to the story, a background character portrayed in the artwork, but not referred to in the main prose.
Given the light tone of the book, it would be inappropriate and unfair to cast too critical an eye over the cartoonified Elasmosaurus, so I won’t. Ahh, go on then, I can’t resist, just a little analysis. The swan-necked posture was certainly impossible in all plesiosaurians – the vertebrae don’t articulate that way. The neck is also short by a fair few vertebrae – I count 48 neck vertebrae in one illustration, 28 in another. There were, in fact, no less than 71 neck vertebrae in Elasmosaurus! To go any further with this unjust analysis would be remiss, this is not a text-book, and any book that raises the profile of plesiosaurs and palaeontology in general is good news!
Overall, this is an entertaining and distinctively illustrated romp of a story that I enjoyed thoroughly. I’ll be passing my copy onto my young niece and nephews who, no doubt, will appreciate it just as much as I do.