With ROCKET BOYS, which was made into the award-winning film October Sky, Homer Hickam proved himself to be not only a terrific storyteller, but someone who had a lot more tales in him to entertain us. His early books were autobiographical, yet filled with adventure, pathos and triumph. His novels have taken us to faraway places in different times, from a futuristic return to the moon, to the Solomon Islands and the East Coast of the United States during World War II.
THE DINOSAUR HUNTER bridges ancient prehistory with modern times through ex-LAPD cop turned cowboy Mike Wire. Mike has ditched the big city hassle as a crime fighter to lead the quiet life of a cowhand on the Square C Ranch in eastern Montana. The big skies of Montana hover over some of the richest fields of ancient dinosaur fossils in the world, and a recent find of the bones of what may be a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex on the Square C has attracted a team of paleontologists who want to search for what could be one of the most important finds yet.
Mike’s boss, Jeannette Coulter, grants the permission but directs Mike to work with the group of two young women and their boss, Dr. Pickford, to keep an eye on where they go and what they do. Mike begins to enjoy and appreciate the paleontologists’ back-breaking work and joins the dig with enthusiasm. The scientists are looking for not just how the dinosaurs lived but how and why they died. Each find brings them closer to discovering more about these ancient giants.
When two of the local ranchers’ cows are found with their throats cut near the dig, the group grows wary yet continues their work. But when a prominent businessman from the nearby small town turns up dead, his throat also cut, Mike’s detective skills resurface and he reluctantly turns to hunting for modern-day killers instead of dead dinosaurs.
The independent souls who ranch the vast lands of Montana hold differing opinions of outsiders crossing their lands and digging up the mucky clay soils. Hickam has spent several summers in the region and has captured the pioneering, individualist spirit of the ranchers and some of the people who, like Mike, have left the stresses of the big city behind to live the quiet and very private life of the old West. A rugged family of survivalists are hunkered down with bunkers full of weapons on one ranch, while a reclusive but wealthy former movie director lives at the end of Rancher’s Road with a suspicious-looking tattooed Russian who may or may not be his bodyguard. One of the two girls on the paleontology team is also Russian and may be connected somehow to the man at the Hollywood director's ranch. Fossil fuel leases have played an important role in the area’s economy, and local businessmen also have a stake in how the lands are used. There are plenty of suspects to go around as Mike digs deeper into the modern-day clues to the murder.
Hickam, now retired from NASA where he was a space scientist, has become a dinosaur hunter in his spare time. The colorful descriptions of the activities on the dig and the fascinating history that continues to unfold as these gigantic fossils are unearthed are not only authentic and accurate, but fascinatingly woven into the story.
Once the grazing and hunting grounds of the giants of our prehistory, Montana continues to yield some of the most exciting finds of skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and other creatures from the Cretaceous period. Much of the research on these giants that lived on earth millions of years before man arrived has been done at The Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. It was my pleasure to visit the museum a year ago and go behind the scenes to observe some of the restoration work done by the paleontologists. Several groups of students from kindergarten through high school could be seen, held in rapt attention as museum docents described the displays. It’s not hard to see why people of all ages become so drawn to studying these fascinating ancient creatures. Hickam will further fuel the fires of our imaginations with this adventurous tale.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 9, 2010