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Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams

Title: The Dinosaur Artist

Author: Paige Williams

Publisher:  Hachette Books

Publication Date: September 11, 2018

Genres: Non-Fiction

Shelves: Female-author

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy wasn’t quite the book I expected, but Paige Williams weaves an interesting exposé of the legal quagmire that is fossil collecting.

As a dinosaur fanatic and amateur fossil hunter, I was fascinated – not to mention, a little bit terrified – by the consequences of collecting, transporting, and trafficking in fossils. It’s so easy to pick up a brachiopod, a piece of horn coral, or even a trilobite, and think nothing of the impact of that find, the potential loss of scientific value that comes in removing it from its context and setting. At the same time, it’s just as easy to understand the counter-argument that, by collecting fossils, amateurs save them from erosion or destruction, and provide the world with a chance to appreciate them.

Of course, when you look at all of that on a much larger scale – such as that of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar – it becomes a bit easier to understand why there has been so much drama around the auction and seizure of Eric Prokopi’s 8-foot high, 24-foot long, million-dollar specimen. While that is the heart of the story, it drives the overall narrative than dominating it, which was both a surprise and a relief. As a human-interest figure, Prokopi is just not that compelling, and it’s hard to become emotionally involved in his struggles. We can appreciate the situation, and understand the impact to his family, but I didn’t find his story evoked the kind of sympathy that would have transformed him into a tragic figure.

Where the human element comes through the strongest is in the backstories of surrounding the case, both historical and contemporary. I had no idea the fossil trade was such a massive community, full of such colorful (and, yes, criminal) characters. The history of the trade, with the establishment of Natural History collections across the world, was perhaps the most interesting part of the book, especially in the chapter devoted to Mary Anning. Her story is one that’s always fascinated me, and Williams does a superb job of . . . well, presenting her in context and setting, much like a proper fossil discovery. Fast forward to contemporary times, as much as I might identify with Prokopi’s passion for fossils, I found I sympathized more with the passion and patriotism of Bolor and Oyuna, with surprised me.

Where that human element is somewhat buried, almost lost in the details, is with the criminal case itself. I was expecting that to be the focus of the book, to read about arguments and counterarguments . . . the testimony, the charges, and the deals . . . the scandal and spectacle, if you will. Instead, it’s presented as a shockingly dull, matter-of-fact sequence of events, more akin to fighting a parking ticket than arguing such a landmark case. I’m glad Williams didn’t attempt to artificially sensationalize it, but I’m also a bit saddened that it wasn’t more of a spectacle in real life. The interplay of discovery, science, ethics, passion, and international law is something that deserves to be discussed on a much broader scale.

The Dinosaur Artist is compellingly readable, as accessible to those with a curiosity as it is satisfying to those with a passion, and does a fair job of raising questions and highlighting issues, without trying force a conclusion upon the reader. Definitely recommended.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the author for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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