CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 37. . . .May 27, 2016
With early scenes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet set in Indiana Jones action, Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing grabs readers by the khaki lapels and hauls them around history.
Samuel Bolt, 17, and his paleontologist father set off for the Badlands of the United States with a dream of unearthing the skeleton of Black Beauty, a massive meat eating dinosaur that will put them both into the history books. But Rachel Cartland and her professor father are looking too, and, for Rachel, the find holds the promise of a life of the science she loves, rather than a restrictive marriage or a dry spinsterhood. As the competition between their duelling fathers heats up, Rachel and Sam are thrown together and their romance blooms. Torn between their thirst for scientific recognition, loyalty to their fathers and their hunger for each other, the two must overcome old enmity and prejudices to find the Rex and create a life together.
But the book goes beyond romance. Through evocative description of a lawless frontier town to the elaborate expedition mounted by Professor Cartland to conquer the badlands, Oppel creates a setting that is both familiar to fans of Westerns and strikingly fresh with the addition of scientific detail. Writing in alternating voices of Sam and Rachel, Oppel manages to strike a fine balance between providing technical and scientific context and maintaining narrative momentum. The novel challenges sexist stereotypes by making Samuel the good looking, romantic personality and Rachel the gruff, practical, ambitious one. It also challenges racist stereotypes of Native Americans by creating individual and cultural motives for both beliefs and aggression. The thematic connections are clear, suggesting that truth lurks beneath the surface as readers dig for hidden skeletons, see history through several perspectives, and find motives in past personal trauma. Young adult readers will find the connections satisfying but not overwhelming.
Oppel is, above all, an excellent storyteller. The writing flows effortlessly, with dialogue that rings true and characters who are colourful and flamboyant but still somehow convincing. Though some midstream switches in voice are abrupt and awkward, most are a smooth pass between characters. The occasional lapse into second person at moments of intimacy may be confusing for inexperienced readers, but it creates a deep immediacy and connection.
This is a book that will appeal to both boys and girls. A thrilling adventure as well as a tender love story, Every Hidden Thing uses history and romance to stir the hearts of a new generation.
Wendy Phillips is a teacher librarian in Richmond, BC and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.
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