Wednesday, July 29

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins


An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins,
Artist and Lecturer
by Barbara Kerley
illustrations by Brian Selznick
Scholastic 2001

The story of Waterhouse Hawkins is one of those odd ducks that are at once as fascinating as they are forgetable. Waterhouse (as he apparently preferred to be known) was a (self-taught?) naturalist artist who (somehow) managed to find himself commissioned to make life-sized models from the fractured, (incorrectly) recreated fossils of dinosaur bones that had been discovered at the end of the 19th century. Working with the scientist Richard Owen, renowned for his ability to reconstruct animal physiology with only the slightest of fragments, Waterhouse was able to present to the public their first glimpse at the creatures who once populated the planet.

Kerely does an interesting (not necessarily positive) thing here and separates Waterhouse's saga into three parts: London of the 1850s, America in the 1870s, then back to London. It's an unusual story arc because Kerley isn't telling a life story or a biography so much as she's highlighting the years of Waterhouse's fame. His proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, you might say. While this isn't necessarily a problem it does leave us with a story whose narrative arc is based entirely on this nebulous rising and falling of Waterhouse's fame.

Additionally, the "climax" of the narrative arc culminates in Waterhouse upsetting Boss Tweed in New York where he is at work building a palace to house a new collection of dinosaurs. Pissing off Tweed in a public forum, Waterhouse returns to his workshop to find his works in progress smashed to ruins and carted away where they were buried in Central Park. Waterhouse then returns to London for his final act which, at least here, consists of reflecting on new knowledge that renders his creations inaccurate, pondering what great new discoveries might be on the horizon.

While this isn't quite a "history" of an individual, as promised in the subtitle, we do have a drawn out vignette of a Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins. The "illuminating" aspect might be defined simply as presenting the reader with a rough sketch of a minor player in the history of anthropology. Going back over this, I'm surprised by how little I actually learn about the subject. I also don't find myself caring whether or not he gets funding to make his sculptures, or find I'm involved enough with his American undertaking to feel horrified at the destruction carried out in his workshop.

The information provided does, however, suggest answers to these problems.

I think I would have preferred the book not be about Waterhouse as an individual, but about the process that led to the creation of these sculptures. I would rather have seen a story about how Waterhouse and Owen came together, worked together, with a little comparison between the scientist and the artist and how their fields inform each other. Seeing their struggle to recreate what had never been seen or recorded would make for a nice triumph that would naturally lead Waterhouse to America, as it did.

From there, some background on Boss Tweed and political corruption in New York, along with some public sentiment either way about the dinosaurs, so we can get a feel for the showdown to come. Then, big showdown, work crushed, Waterhouse returns to England, complete with coda about how his statues are there to this day.

I know, I know, a review isn't supposed to rewrite or tell the author how they should have written their book. But in trying to understand why this didn't work for me I had to try and envision a way in which the story could have worked. Sometimes I don't think it's enough to say "this didn't work, and here's why" without offering an alternate possibility. Clearly my suggestion isn't the book Kerley set out to write, but the book, as written, is only a mildly entertaining and easily forgettable tale.
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