A Bone to Pick
- Tim Bowling (Author)
The Bone Sharps. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Samuel Pane
Tim Bowling is no greenhorn to the badlands. He’s prospected there before and prepared fine specimens, startling as fossil teeth amidst ironstone. Not only does he go with Al Purdy into the restricted area of Dinosaur Provincial Park, but also the collectors who went before. Even they succumbed to the occasional temptation, and scrawled rhyming couplets in notebooks alongside section diagrams and squashed mosquitoes. From the poems in Darkness and Silence and The Memory Orchard, Bowling has moved on to new fields in search of those terrible lizards that once roamed the shores of the Bearpaw Sea.
Bowling’s new novel, The Bone Sharps, follows the Sternberg family, canonical figures of North American palaeontology, not only on a fictionalized expedition to Alberta’s Red Deer River, but also through memory and the archive. He isn’t the first author to make the trip. Robert Kroetsch sent William Dawe on a similar voyage in Badlands. Bowling elects to call his chief bone hunter by his Christian name, Charles Hazelius. Aside from rooting the novel in the documentary tradition of Canadian letters, this gesture gives Bowling occasion to explore the vocational aspect of Sternberg’s toils. He shows the reader how hunting the vanished lords of the Mesozoic was for Sternberg a spiritual quest, how the delicate skull of troodon can be a kind of grail too.
Bowling has done his homework. In one of several subplots, Scott Cameron, volunteer soldier, former assistant to the Sternbergs, and correspondent to Lily, the blacksmith’s daughter, secures a specimen while stationed on the western front. The episode has historical precedent. Rumours abound about a female bone sharp who may have scoured the ground around Steveville. However, a British Tunnelling Company formally reported the discovery of an Ice Age mammoth while excavating a strategic gallery in the French chalk. Scientists later collected it after the Great War.
Cameron carries a copy of Sternberg’s first autobiography from 1909. The novel’s flashbacks involving Edward Drinker Cope, principal antagonist in the American “Bone Wars,” are indebted to The Life of a Fossil Hunter. It details the early phase of Sternberg’s career before he was engaged by the Geological Survey of Canada to participate in the “Canadian Dinosaur Rush”—a gentlemanly contest against Barnum Brown who would send Albertan dinosaurs by the boxcar to New York’s American Museum. However, The Bone Sharps owes much of its psychological thrust, mainly Sternberg’s crisis of faith, to Hunting Dinosaurs in the Badlands of Alberta, Sternberg’s second autobiography, published a full year after the action described in the novel. Of particular significance is a peculiar chapter in which Sternberg imagines a reunion with his deceased daughter on the shores of a Cretaceous ocean!
A stingy reader, with a nose for anachronism, might take Bowling to task for gathering all the Sternbergs together for one final hurrah. Historical documentation for the 1916 field season is conspicuously slim—no mean convenience for Bowling and Kroetsch before him. The Rush had concluded. Urgency had waned. War had shrivelled resources. Only two Sternbergs remained in GSC service. Charles Mortram likely prepared specimens in Ottawa while George continued to collect. Their brother Levi, and father Charles Hazelius, returned to the field too, but as independents for the British Museum. Only a humbug would deny the poet his due license. And who could blame a novelist for rescuing gems like “vandal hand of man” and “vivarium” from old dusty volumes? Gaspereau shares this antiquarian eye with book craft as elegant as an ammonite. Bowling succeeds because he takes Sternberg at his word and “breathes life into the valley of the dry bones.”
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MLA: Bowling, Tim and Pane, Samuel. A Bone to Pick. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 118 - 119)
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