There are multiple stories occurring within the scope of this novel. We have Charles Hazelius Sternberg (a real life historical figure), a fossil hunter, creeping closer to the end of his career, possibly losing his mind in the Alberta badlands, in 1916. We have Sternberg’s young assistant, Scott Cameron, in the trenches of World War I in France. We have Sternberg, forty years previously, in 1876, working with his hero and mentor, Edward Drinkwater Cope. We have Sternberg’s assistant and Scott’s love, Lily, years in the future, in 1975, returning to the Alberta badlands on a mysterious task.
There’s a lot of potential in each of these story lines but unfortunately not a lot of payoff. While Bowling may be confined by the real life facts of Sternberg’s life, the novel still falls flat in some of its attempts. Bowling is also a poet and it shows in his writing. (And I mean that as a compliment.) His descriptions of the fossils, of the dry and arid lands where these bones are found, of the smells and sights, are rich, often beautiful, often uncomfortable in exactly the right way. Cope and Sternberg share a single-minded passion for finding these fossils in the “cemeteries of God” and they also share a religious fervour for their work that adds an interesting dynamic both to their relationships and their individual characters. Cope, in particular, seems like a highly nuanced, complicated man and I wished that the book delved deeper into his story.
Instead, we have a lot of time spent in 1916 with Sternberg dwelling on the past. In particular, he is obsessed with the death of his daughter twenty years earlier. I have no idea how such an experience would affect someone but as I read I kept thinking, “Why now?” Why is this section of the book set in 1916? Sternberg’s daughter’s death is years in the past and yet it seems to have come up afresh for him. But the book never explains this trigger and so, instead, Sternberg seems unhinged in a way that I’m not entirely sure we’re supposed to see him. We’re told that Lily’s presence reminds Sternberg of his daughter because she suffered from the same illness but even that event took place two years previous.
My best guess is that the setting is 1916 to create the juxtaposition of Sternberg searching for fossils in the badlands and Scott in the trenches of France. Scott is set up as a sort of version of Sternberg on a different path. Scott shares Sternberg’s enthusiasm and passion for fossil hunting and discovery – and some of his religious passion – but his time at the front is quickly diminishing all other desires other than survival. There’s a dullness to the sections about Scott that, while it doesn’t make for very exciting reading, does a good job of recreating the boredom of war. The reader, like Scott, is waiting for something to happen, knowing that that something might be death and tragedy.
One of the most fascinating things about both Cope and Sternberg, in my mind, is their fervent Christianity. While Bowling does a fine job of emphasizing how important faith is to each man (manifesting itself in somewhat different ways in their respective lives), I felt that there was a missed opportunity in exploring what it meant to be a scientist unearthing ancient fossils and a Christian at the end of the nineteenth century. Cope refers once, disparagingly, to Darwin but this is never explored further.
All in all, there are a lot of times this book almost gets somewhere but it never quite reaches its potential.
(I rarely comment on the actual physical look of a book because of that whole “judging books by their covers” thing, but this is a really beautifully made book. Gaspereau Press undoubtedly does fine work.)