The author of Letters from Yellowstone (1999) crafts another reflective historical, this one about an 1876 fossil-hunting foray into Montana.
Looking back on this eventful expedition 43 years later, as she goes through paintings and drawings made there by her friend, elderly artist Augustus Starwood, scientific illustrator Eleanor Peterson recalls the motley crew assembled by a mysterious “Captain” from Yale. Among them are expedition leader Patrick Lear, one of several characters scarred by his Civil War experiences, and his friend James Huntington, a wealthy collector entranced by the West’s natural wonders and native cultures. Starwood falls in love with this new landscape too, purchasing a teepee, letting his white hair flow loose, and quoting Shakespeare all the while. Peterson is more reserved, anxious to perform to the Captain’s exacting specifications (he’s notorious for stealing credit from his subordinates, but she hopes her work will win her a job at Yale). She too lost something crucial during the war (a dead fiancé is suggested) and is looking for a safe harbor, not a grand vista. Yet her warm relationship with Huntington, who’s engaged but obviously drawn to her, opens her heart to the wilderness. The quiet development of this and several other intriguing relationships is somewhat at odds with a melodramatic plot involving the discovery of a Triceratops fossil and a mountain cave-in. Forgettable are the lurking rival paleontologists and other ne’er-do-wells who muddy the action, but readers will remember Smith’s more inventive creations: the medic, cashiered from the army for exposing inhumane conditions, who now wears Indian garb and travels with a bear; Leary’s conflict between his religious faith and his belief in Darwinian theory; Huntington’s rueful acknowledgment that he finds the world of his imagination more compelling than the real one.
Fine work by an author who seems to be making a specialty of excavating the American past for its ecological ramifications and spiritual yearnings.