While writing the title for this post, I accidentally typed “The Dinosaur Thief,” which gives you an idea what kind of impression I had about the main character of this true story, Eric Prokopi.
Non-fiction “crime” stories (and I use that term loosely, since sometimes a “crime” doesn’t turn out to be a crime at all) tend to follow a pretty tried-and-true narrative style: the criminal and the person trying to catch the criminal. In other words: a protagonist and an antagonist. The best non-fiction crime stories are so well-written that it’s up to the reader to determine which character is the antagonist and which the protagonist.
Take Eric Prokopi, the seminal “criminal” in this book. At his core, he’s a fossil hunter who went to Mongolia and purchased fossils from a unique geological terrain, then imported them back to the United States to clean them up and sell them. But author Paige Williams does an admirable job humanizing him, walking the reader through his life and motivations and inspirations. Is he a criminal? Yes. But whether the reader will come out of it condemning him is another story entirely.
We all take personal baggage into the books we read. How we interpret these real-life events can help us build empathy and think critically about how we approach the concept of “justice.” In the case of Prokopi, I came out of this book feeling sorry for everything he went through … and yet I never found myself defending his actions. The story at the heart of this book concerns a very special fossil collection:
In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: “a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton.” In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar, a close cousin to the most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and twenty-four feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded, the winning bid was over $1 million.
I don’t have much patience anymore for people who “fudge” the truth in order to profit from our natural world. I’m sitting here watching the president of Brazil lie about the fires spreading through the rainforest in order to protect slash-and-burn farming techniques. The more I read about colonialism, the more infuriated I get when museums in developed nations refuse to return precious artifacts to their home countries, arguing that the home countries wouldn’t take care of the artifacts, arguing that the artifacts have too much important to “human” history.
And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. Reading great books like this gives me pause. Great books like The Dinosaur Artist help me see the gray between the black and white, and I find the needle of my own moral compass moving ever so slightly. While I still find myself siding with Mongolia in its struggle to retrieve the poached fossils, I can’t entirely shake the worry I fear that these fossils are “wasted” in such a remote location. But I think that’s the product of colonialism, the insipid belief that “we” can handle the relics of world history better than “them.” Truth is, I like working through these things when I read great books like The Dinosaur Artist. I like confronting and challenging my own beliefs, especially the ones that were so strongly informed by growing up in privilege.
Be open-minded enough to let your mind change. Let new books inform your understanding of the world, and take pleasure in this elasticity as you grow.