Bones (2014), by John Wilson

Well, this is a rather long review for a rather short book: my apologies, but it sparked thoughts that fly off in all directions…

I looked at the number of unread novels at the side of my desk (not yet overshadowed by the number of read-but-not-yet-reviewed novels) and was struck by the number of slim volumes with small killer whales breaching on their brightly coloured spines. It made me have to look up how many stories Orca has published in their Currents (82), Soundings (104), Limelight (10), and Sports (42) series, titles from all of which I have reviewed. The literary quality might be a bit uneven overall, but it is gratifying to see how many of my favourite Canadian authors for children and teens take the time and energy away from their longer works to fill the shelves of libraries and classrooms where disadvantaged students struggle to engage with reading. This is not to say that these books are only found in inner-city schools and the like, but I know for a fact how welcome they are in these spaces: I have been told so often when I take my review copies (never “advanced reading copies”!) for donation. Any of you who do have books in good condition to get rid of, please consider donating them to local libraries. School libraries in the Vancouver area, especially, can always use free books, given budgetary cut-backs, and even the Vancouver Public Library accepts donations of books for distribution as prizes in their reading camps.

The book that was on the top of my pile was John Wilson’s recent Orca Currents contribution, Bones. I expected good things, having greatly enjoyed Wilson’s The Heretic’s Secret novels, and having recently reviewed Wings of War for Resource Links magazine. I really look forward to his upcoming novel about John Franklin, especially given the recent discovery of one of Franklin’s boats—is it the Erebus? or the Terror?—off King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. But I digress.

Wilson - BonesBones (2014)

Bones lives up to my expectations, being another excellent example of Wilson’s care in research and presentation of data. In this novel, his topic is palæontology; the setting, the badlands and coulees surrounding Drumheller, Alberta, location of the world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum. Wilson conveys to his readers the depth of his own understanding of his topic, yet avoids any patronizing or erudite tone in his narration: exactly what struggling readers need in order to engage with the story. Wilson has chosen this topic well for another reason, too: it seems to be true still today, that children all go through a “dinosaur” phase. I remember having memorized the names of dozens of prehistoric creatures; the rivalry between my brother and me was replicated 30 years later in my own children’s lives. [As an aside, the dedication of Bones thrilled me: “For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Lost Worlds first sparked my interest in dinosaurs.” I read Lost Worlds in my youth as a result of my obsession with dinosaurs. The more I know of John Wilson, the more I like this author… But I digress: again.]

To return to Bones: Sam and his girlfriend Annabel have come from Australia to visit Sam’s mother, who lives in a commune near Drumheller. The highly intelligent Annabel is already fascinated by palæontology, and Sam feels somewhat excluded from her conversations with Dr. Bob Owen, his mother’s friend and a researcher at the museum. Sam’s annoyance turns to jealousy when they meet Glen, a research student working with Dr. Bob. This social aspect to the story underlies a mystery that the two teens become involved in: indeed, discover. They had previously run across Humphrey Battleford, a private art “collector” (read, in this instance: thief). Wilson’s allusions to his previous story, Stolen (2013), are suggestive but not intrusive, as is his hook at the end of the story, when Annabel ponders, “I wonder if we’ve seen the last of him?” (117). If you do follow my blog, you will know my opinion of series fiction that requires readers to continue. Bones is a fine example of how to do it right. We know there is a history with the dishonest Battleford, but the exact details are not given nor do they matter. What we do know is that his presence sets the teens on alert, and that their concerns are justified. When Sam, Annabel, and Dr. Bob discover that their fossils have been stolen, they recognize the futility of going to the police, a degree of realism often overlooked in teen fiction. The wheels of legal bureaucracy move very slowly indeed; in order to ensure his continued research, Dr. Bob understands that it is more important to get his fossils back than it is to have Battleford brought to justice. And thus the story ends. Annabel’s final comment to Sam leaves open the possibility—but not the requirement—of future instalments of their story.

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