Cretaceous Dawn: 65 Million Years in the Past, the Journey Begins, Lisa M. Graziano and Michael S. A. Graziano. Leapfrog Press, Teaticket, Massachusetts, 2008, $15.95, soft-cover; 312 pp.
Lisa Graziano contacted me last May to offer a copy of Cretaceous Dawn for review for Jack's Stacks. In part, Lisa points out, "The purpose of the book is to educate people about paleontology, the late Cretaceous, and science in general, with a look at broad concepts such as evolution and the scientific method." I thought sure, I'll check it out based on that purpose. I'm not certain when I realized that Cretaceous Dawn was a novel and not my usual fare of hard hitting non-fiction but it was too late. I was committed. It turns out that was a good thing.
I haven't done a bio' of an author in my reviews for quite some time as they are usually known paleontologists or historians in the field. In this case some biographical information is helpful. From the inside back cover of Cretaceous Dawn, Lisa Graziano is a Ph. D. and former professor of Oceanography at Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Michael Graziano is a Ph. D. and professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University. It is good to know that the authors are scientists as well as writers.
My first mistake with Cretaceous Dawn was deciding to read it in bed to relax and help me fall asleep. Well, at 3:30 AM and two thirds of the way through the book, I had to force myself to turn off the light and try to sleep. I managed to finish Cretaceous Dawn the next day as I made a point to read rather than do the chores I should have been doing. I believe this qualifies Cretaceous Dawn as a page-turner.
Unlike the non-fiction I usually read and review, I have to be careful not to reveal too much of the story in Cretaceous Dawn. In this case, I do not want to give away the ending or even key happenings during the middle of the book so as not to ruin it for other readers. I do want to tell you a few things to pique your interest however.
The cast of characters in Cretaceous Dawn includes Julian Whitney, a shy and unassuming paleontologist who is the recognized authority on the insects of the Cretaceous. As an insect specialist he seems to know quite a bit more about Cretaceous plants and animals than I would have expected. As the story begins, Julian is ready to begin teaching his popular class, Lectures on Cretaceous Ecology. Most of the story is told from his perspective. Yariko Miyakara is a brilliant young physicist with Nobel written in her future. Both Julian and Yariko work for the University of Creekbend in South Dakota.
Julian is called by Yariko to help explain a strange anomaly in an experimental Top Secret Naval project that she, her older colleague Dr. Shanker and her graduate student Mark Reng are conducting. The secret project involves a theory of quantum gravity that posits the existence and possible creation of Gravitons. The Navy has a special interest in these particles. Gravitons are truly a part of quantum field theory so this is not a fabrication for the purpose of the book.
While Mark has left the lab to do homework, something goes terribly wrong with the stability of the experimental equipment and it explodes, transporting Julian, Yariko, Dr. Shanker and his German Shepard Hilda and a Naval security guard to a sandy beach. After making some pertinent observations, Julian is able to convince the group that they have been delivered to the Cretaceous.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, the police are brought in and the investigation begins. As far as Mark Reng and the police know, four people and a dog have disappeared, the equipment appears destroyed, and there is blood all over.
That's it. That's all I'm revealing about the plot.
The course of Cretaceous Dawn follows the time travelers' predicament and the investigation into their disappearance. Each chapter bounces between these two situations. Will the investigators realize that the missing are not dead? Would they be able to retrieve them? Will the stranded scientists survive in the Cretaceous long enough for a rescue? Reading the book will fill in those details for you.
The question beyond the entertainment value of Cretaceous Dawn is whether it delivers on the educational goal Lisa established at the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, Julian was ready to start his class, Lectures on Cretaceous Ecology, when Yariko asked for his help. An epigraph begins each chapter of Cretaceous Dawn with a quote from Julian's lectures. These quotes are not only pertinent to the chapter but it is also where exposure to the science of paleontology takes place. As an example, in the words of Julian Whitney in the epigraph to chapter three, "Once you have found a bed of fossils, how do you determine its age? Radiometric dating is not always possible, but there are a number of other methods. Ammonites are the fabulous chronometers of the dinosaur era. They lived in shallow, warm seas, and have left us the fossilized impressions of their shells in uncountable thousands. We know so much about Ammonites and how they evolved over time that merely by glancing at a few shell patterns we can date the fossil bed to within a million years" (30). Besides lessons such as this example, there is also the more subtle message that paleontology is not only about bones and dinosaurs, as I'm sure most people believe, but it is also about ecosystems, animal behavior and interrelationships, evolution and extinction.
Adding to the scientific accuracy, the Grazianos verified all of the Cretaceous flora and fauna with specialists who reviewed their work. Dr. Kirk Johson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science checked on the botanical aspects and Dr. Julia Sankey, professor of vertebrate paleontology from California State University examined the faunal assemblage. Unlike Jurassic Park, all of the plants and animals belong together naturally in Cretaceous Dawn. Animal behavior exhibited in Cretaceous Dawn is as accurate as can be determined from modern paleontological studies. The dinosaurs themselves are accurately sized unlike the exaggerated Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movie. Careful attention was paid to the changes in flora and fauna as the stranded scientists travel through different environments. Because of their diligence towards accuracy, the Grazianos have presented the best picture possible today as to what it would be like to go back in time to the Cretaceous - it's not all tropical jungles and it's not all dinosaurs.
I hope that you take some time to read Cretaceous Dawn. If you do, I think you will agree with me that the book will translate well to the big screen - provided that the producers stay true to the plot.
Readability - High School and up.
On the Upside - Exciting, engaging and hard to put down. The life and ecosystems described are scientifically accurate based upon modern paleontological studies.
On the Downside - Exciting, engaging and hard to put down. Yes, I meant to say that again. Don't start reading Cretaceous Dawn if you have to be somewhere in a few hours, you'll be late.
Overall Rating - Highly recommended fictional reading for lovers of our prehistoric past. An exciting page turner that will keep you riveted for hours.