With his new novel, Toronto-based YA author Kenneth Oppel takes readers back in time for a high stakes, romantic adventure set against the classic backdrop of a bloody conflict between rival gangs of … dinosaur hunters?
Yes, dinosaur hunters. Or, more properly, fossil hunters.
Inspired by historical accounts, Every Hidden Thing is an exploration of the passionate conflicts between 19th-century paleontologists in the earliest days of the science. Michael Bolt and Frederick Cartland, both widowers, are former friends and longtime rivals, each seeking to bring evidence of newly discovered species to the world, with occasionally bloody results.
But the novel isn’t really about the two scientists; it’s about their children. Samuel, Bolt’s 17-year-old son, a high-spirited, impatient boy kicked out of school and with no intention of returning, is gifted with a knack for reconstructing skeletal remains. Rachel Cartland, in contrast, is a serious girl, determined to attend university and become a proper paleontologist herself, despite her father’s strong wishes to the contrary.
When they receive a package from a mysterious stranger, the Bolts are transfixed. The crate contains a fossilized tooth larger than any they have ever seen: from a dinosaur, they speculate, so large they can only refer to it as “rex.” Through Samuel’s machinations, father and son embark on an expedition to the Badlands of the western U.S. territories in pursuit.
Aboard the train, they are surprised to discover the Cartlands are also headed west. Their disappointment deepens when the larger, better-funded rival expedition disembarks at the same station. It’s hardly surprising, from a narrative point of view, that their explorations put them in close contact, allowing the competition to escalate, while at the same time providing the circumstances for a clandestine relationship to develop between the two teenagers.
Every Hidden Thing works well on a number of levels. As a mock history, it offers readers a sense of a vanished world in a restrained, unobtrusive manner. As an exploration of obsession and its costs, it allows readers the vicarious
thrill of discovery, and the agony of the search. And as a romance, it is a realistic and enthralling depiction of young, secretive love.
This is not a clichéd, simplistic love story. The relationship between Samuel and Rachel is rooted deeply in Oppel’s skilled and subtle development of their individual characters. Shifting easily between their points of view, the author builds the relationship honestly and, at times, surprisingly.
For instance, it is Samuel who is the most emotionally open, falling in love easily and quickly, his thoughts completely swept up. Rachel is a girl unlike any he has met before: smart, driven, and charmingly peculiar. She is the more pragmatic of the two, attentive to her own desires and vision, not “one bit romantic.”
Far from home, “out here in the ruins of the world … no bookish laws and rules to manacle us,” the two get to know each other with an often disarming candour (including a couple of brief, tasteful but frank sex scenes), drawing together despite their fathers, and planning a life of their own.
While the romantic storyline forms the emotional core of the book, the narrative is driven by themes of boundless scientific curiosity and competitiveness, which envelopes even the young lovers. There are encounters with thieves and fires to push the action forward, and a looming conflict with the Sioux to provide tension, but this is a novel of discovery, both scientific and personal.