Samuel and Rachel travel with their fathers to the Badlands in search of dinosaur fossils, but not just any dinosaur fossils, those of the T-Rex – the “Black Beauty.” Oh, but Samuel and Rachel’s fathers hate each other and will stop at nothing to lie, cheat, and steal from one another. They also enjoy punching one another in the face!
The sour relationship between their fathers does not slow Samuel and Rachel from discovering and pursuing their feelings for one another, nor does it discourage them from looking for the legendary T-Rex.
So, my first thought was, “I’m just not that into dinosaurs,” but the story quickly captured my attention. Oppel has a way of writing that I can only describe as old and proper. The language is fitting of the period, the late 1800s. It’s just so much fun to read! You learn early on in the story that Samuel is attracted to and will undoubtedly fall in love with Rachel.
The story is a fictional one, but is based on the real-life story of Edward Drinkwater Cope and Othniel Marsh, two paleontologists who were once friends, but ended up in cut-throat competition with one another. It was the work of these American paleontologists and others like them that sparked the interest of our nation in the discovering and recovering of dinosaur fossils in America. (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/di…)
What you will find in this book
There’s definitely going to be spoilers in this section…
Samuel and Rachel:
I’d never been more aware of a girl’s scent—not just the pleasant floral of soap, but the smell of her hair and heat of her skin. To my horror, I felt myself stiffening between my legs, and I silently counted backward from ten. Which usually worked, but didn’t now, so I imagined Mrs. Shaw, my former history teacher, which always worked.p.9
I’m sorry to lead with this, but for me, the tone of the book was set on page 9 when Samuel, one of our story’s protagonists, gets an erection while talking to Rachel, our story’s other protagonist. Love at first sight? I’d call it infatuation, but that’s another discussion altogether. The author does not describe the situation in detail, but it’s clear that Samuel is physically attracted to Rachel. My first thought was, “Uh oh, where are we headed?” but as I read or listen to more YA material, I’m finding that sexuality is a pretty common topic. I don’t feel that I have formed a strong enough argument on the subject (one way or another) to discuss it intelligently here and now, so let’s plan on a later article dedicated to the topic of sexuality in YA material.
By page 19, I knew I was going to like this book!
Boy meets girl and instantly falls in love because of her eyes…
Dinosaurs… (OK, I know what I said a minute ago about dinosaurs, but still…)
Samuel and Rachel:
She looked at me and I couldn’t look away. Her eyes were extraordinary, not just for their piercing blue-it was the white amber markings in her irises, like shooting stars and the aurora borealis radiating from the blackness of her pupils. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of the universe.
It took me completely by surprise: With absolute certainty, I knew I’d fall in love with her.p.19
Love is something we can’t explain. It’s not scientific. It may be observable and repeatable, but it can’t truly be measured. It’s not logical. Sometimes it goes against what everyone around us is telling us to be true. They’ll say, “you’re too young,” or “you don’t know what you’re doing,” etc. Love doesn’t make sense, and it is different for each one of us. But for most, it does go through a predictable cycle: He/she can do no wrong. He/she is practically perfect in every way. I can’t live without him/her. Familiarity breeds contempt. It is discovered that love must be based on more than just physical and emotional feelings, and it is either strengthened or it fades completely.
Millions of years, blah, blah, blah.
Behind him a long hall lead back into gloom and the muffled squeal of women. I was curious about the sounds, wanting to listen more. But the man at the counter was watching.p.91
A young reader might not understand what’s happening here, but as an adult reader, it was clear to me. It seems to me to be an unnecessary detail to include. I suppose the point was to paint a picture of the town being a rough place, where even the general store had been repurposed to provide less than virtuous services.
And then he kissed me.p.151
His kissing was hurried and too hard. So his actual kisses did not please me much, but him wanting to give them to me did very much.p.154
Oh boy, kissing! My ten year old would be appalled to know that there’s kissing in this book. Of course, my ten-year-old should not be reading this book. I know that my comments so far have seemed relatively negative, but that’s not necessarily the feeling I want you to take away from this article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story because it reminded me of what it felt like to fall in love, where every touch was electric. Where each momentary gaze seemed out of time, lasting for hours. This book is no romance novel, don’t get me wrong, but I enjoyed following the characters as they fell in love.
Although Samuel admits to having kissed before, he obviously didn’t know what he was doing. I’m envisioning a woodpecker. Peck, peck, peck! He had to learn what Rachel seemed already to understand – that the kissing itself wasn’t the most important part of their interaction. Rachel valued the fact that he wanted to kiss her.
As you read through the story, Rachel repeatedly identifies herself as a plain and unattractive person. After her mother died, she had no motherly influence in her life, so naturally, she grew up as a bit of a tomboy, though you’d better not call her that because she’ll punch you in the face! Her father and aunt seemed to drill it into her that she was unattractive and undesirable to young suiters. Rachel’s father even arranged for her to stay with her aunt for the summer to learn to be more lady-like. However, through her interactions with Samuel, Rachel slowly warms to the idea that perhaps she isn’t unlovable. Although she finds Samuel to be charming, she is also skeptical of his motives.
I loved how Rachel listened to me properly-so different from a sour teacher, or my own father with his ten-second span of attention. Always in motion. Rachel didn’t look distracted or move away to some other task or room.p.164
Now Samuel is starting to get it. He is tuning in to the fact that Rachel’s presence is important to him. It’s not just about kissing and holding hands – you know, the touchy-feely stuff. Samuel, too, grew up without a mother and had only his father, who, while he was undoubtedly a passionate scientist and very learned teacher, wasn’t the greatest of fathers. Professor Bolt was a very selfish man, focused almost entirely on his own pursuits. Samuel has difficulty expressing how he feels to Rachel. Samuel is clumsy and awkward when it comes to sharing his feelings. He is afraid of what she will think.
Samuel & Rachel:
[Rachel] “Did he tell you the legend of the Black Beauty?”
[Samuel] “Incredible, isn’t it? Did you tell him you have the tooth?”
“Of course not!”
I grinned. “Have you noticed yourself having any strange
“I do feel invincible,” she admitted with a smile.
“You always were,” I said, and meant it. To me there was something indestructible about her, like deep down there was this core of confidence and conviction that nothing could harm.p.181
Rachel knew what she wanted. She wanted to be digging in the dirt and the stone, looking for bones. It didn’t matter to her that paleontology was a job usually performed by men. She loved it and wasn’t willing to allow anyone to stand in her way of fulfilling her dream of attending university and becoming a paleontologist. I think she was surprised at first by the attention she received from Samuel. His persistence, I believe, helped solidify for her what she already knew to be true – that she had value. She may not have been attractive by the world’s standards, nor was she very lady-like, but that did not diminish her worth.
They were momentous things, those three words “I love you,” and I imagined they could only be uttered with total certainty, and to one person only.p.187
Samuel was the first to confess, as I think is often the case. Well, OK, I guess I can only speak from experience. I remember sitting at a small table at college with my girlfriend (now my wife) and sheepishly looking her in the eye and saying, “I think I love you?” Awkward! She wasn’t so quick to admit her feelings for me. I knew I loved her and would do anything in my power to protect her. She said, “Yeah, I think I like you too…” I wanted to be with her every waking moment and would wait hours for her to arrive at the dining hall so that I could spend a few minutes with her before she sequestered herself again to study. I think she wanted to be certain of her feelings before she used those three words. “I love you.” Those aren’t words to be given to just anyone.
Could I ever love him? He made being in love look so miserable, and like so much work. Such a distraction from what I wanted most to be doing right now.p.208
Samuel was trying to get Rachel to admit how she felt about him, but when we wouldn’t quickly reply with a confession of her love, he childishly responded with hurtful words. He spoke out of entitlement, as though his “love” for Rachel was something she should be thankful for, as though she didn’t really deserve it. What Samuel didn’t yet realize is that love is something you have to give unconditionally. You can’t expect anything in return. That way, when love is reciprocated, it carries much more meaning.
Rachel isn’t sure that she’s ready to enter into a committed relationship. Her focus is on her work and on her dream of going to university. She is afraid that by loving Samuel, she will be distracted from working on what really matters to her. She isn’t necessarily wrong, but she is too immature to realize that there will always be work, and there will always be dreams of future endeavors. At some point, she would have to decide whether or not to make room for love in her life.
Professor Cartland & Rachel:
“The pterodactylus was a good find, I grant you. But I wonder if we’d have all of it to ourselves, if you hadn’t been friendly with Samuel Bolt. As for the brontosaurus, anyone would have found that. You were just lucky enough to stumble over it.” For a moment I was speechless with hurt at how easily he belittled my contributions. It was as if he wasn’t at all proud of me, not one bit. And despite my anger, no matter how hard I tried not to, I began to cry at the sheer injustice of it.p.259
Rachel’s father was so patronizing! He was so consumed by his desire for recognition and his twisted appetite to discredit Bolt that he refused to acknowledge his daughter’s contribution to their mission. Rachel has every right to be upset by her father’s constant minimizing of her efforts. Although it isn’t spelled out explicitly, the reader still gets the idea that her father would prefer that she be a good little girl who stays at home, nice and quiet, learning to cook and sew.
It was one thing to write “yes” in a letter. … All my good sense told me: wait. The decision was too extreme. … He burned so fiercely; but wasn’t that a sign of his love? But everything that burned fiercely died all the faster. If he could fall in love so easily, couldn’t he fall out just as easily? And what if I couldn’t love him properly? I was difficult and prickly and unused to loving.p.272
Samuel asked Rachel to marry him. More accurately, he asked her to elope, so that they could escape their fathers and their drama, so they could look for the “Black Beauty” together as partners and claim it as their own.
I’m not saying that this is acceptable. However, it is an interesting moral dilemma in the story for the reader to consider. Both of their fathers acted selfishly and put their teams at risk. As Samuel and Rachel realize their feelings for one another, they decided that running away together was the best option, not only for their safety but also so that they could continue to search for the Black Beauty. They rushed into this decision. They barely knew each other. I believe that any good parent would be opposed to their eighteen-year-old child eloping – especially with the son/daughter of someone you can’t stand! It is arguable, however, that an eighteen-year-old is technically old enough to make this decision. Each child is different, though, and there are undoubtedly many factors to consider when trying to determine if a boy/girl is old enough to marry.
Chapter 22: A Wedding Night (p.274)
Spoiler alert – Samuel and Rachel get married and have sex.
Though the scene is not described in graphic detail, it’s still detailed enough that I wouldn’t want my kids (12 and under) reading it. Enough said. For now.
There are a few curse words scattered through the book, but they are not a common component of the text.
I loved this book! But it won’t be for everyone. On the inside flap, the publisher suggests that this book is for ages 14 and up. This is where you will have to decide. As an adult, I think you can handle reading this book – no problem. I hope that it does for you what it did for me. It reminded me of falling in love. This is something that I think we all need to reminded of from time to time.
Whether or not you want your teenager to read the book has to be your call. The intimacy and sex are not explicit, nor are they dragged out, but it is clear enough what is happening between the two characters. My daughter is currently only 12 years old, and I would not be comfortable with her reading this book. I’m not convinced that I would be comfortable with her reading it two years from now either, though the sex in this book is probably far tamer than what she is being exposed to in conversations at school. Read chapter 22 for yourself and decide how you would like to proceed.
Overall, the story is well-written and enjoyable to read. I look forward to reading and discussing more of Oppel’s books.
Any anime fans pick up on the reference in the title?