I love dinosaurs.
In the wake of the latest installment of the Jurassic saga, now is the perfect time to bring up one of the strangest books in my collection – a random thing I picked up in a secondhand bookstore when I was in high school that has survived the ensuing years of book-purging so well that I think it will still be on my shelf decades from now, garish amongst my more dignified tomes in its bright red, glaringly 90’s dust jacket.
It is a book about dinosaurs, but not just any book…a novel.
Told from the dinosaur’s perspective.
Hear me out.
I always feel vaguely ridiculous whenever I mention this book to anyone, mostly because of the way the first part of the explanation reads: Guys, DINOSAURS. It’s SO GREAT. But there are other successful, critically-acclaimed books written from the point of view of animals, so why should this one be any different? Perhaps its because dinosaurs are so far distant from us – the fact that they’ve been extinct for centuries elevating them to a sort of mythos, despite the fact that we know perfectly well that they were once real. It’s like talking about a book about dragons, without the magic. We can learn what we can from their remains, but our knowledge remains imperfect, and it’s in those gaps that our imaginations thrive.
This book is not exactly Watership Down – though both stories are narrated in the third person, Watership Down is more of a fantasy, where rabbits speak to each other using actual words translated to English (there’s even a glossary of the “lapine language” at the end) and have a highly complex culture and social system, including folklore. The characters in Raptor Red don’t mimic human consciousness in this way, but the narration does explore the thoughts and experiences of the prehistoric creatures as they struggle to survive.
The book was written (and thus, presumably narrated) by paleontologist Dr. Robert T Bakker, who incidentally was directly involved in the making of the first Jurassic Park movie. In fact, during production, Steven Spielberg wanted the raptors in the film to be about ten feet tall – a great deal bigger than actual Velociraptors in real life. He consulted far and wide for any shred of scientific fact that could back his inclusion of such creatures in the film, but was met with disappointment. However, while they were filming, a set of bones was discovered in the plains of Utah – the bones of a giant raptor. Spielberg’s idea thus justified, they were included and made infamous in the film, though incorrectly named – I’m pretty sure they call them Velociraptors in the movie, but they are in fact, Utahraptors (not the most original or poetic name I’ll admit – Velociraptor sounds way more intimidating).
As you might have guessed at this point, a Utahraptor is the star of this particular novel, and Bakker refers to her (as you also may have guessed) as “Raptor Red”, for the especially bright patch of red on her snout. I’m not sure how much biological evidence Bakker actually had at his disposal to be assigning such colors, and there is in fact, some debate about the veracity of some of the details Bakker utilized, but the earlier point I made about blurring the line between fact and fiction stands as a testament to the story’s appeal, at least for me.
I can’t say that the writing is exceptionally exquisite, or that the storyline is always deftly executed – in fact there are several ambiguous plot twists and narration shifts that still leave me a little confused to this day. But its a story about survival, and dinosaurs, and oddly enough, relationships, all subjects which interest me. The book opens in violence and tragedy – while a pair of raptors execute a daring hunting raid, a freak accident kills Raptor Red’s mate, leaving her alone and afraid:
“The female raptor sits stunned for hours – she has just lost the mate she had chosen for life. They had hunted together successfully hundreds of times. They made countless kills without either raptor being injured in the slightest. She does not know what to do.”
How’s THAT for an opening conflict?! How could you NOT being intrigued? I turned the pages eagerly, needing to know more, and was not disappointed. Raptor Red’s journey had only just begun.
Have a similar interest in dinosaurs? Leave your favorite prehistoric reads below in the comments!