Vandriel: Boys and Badlands

Caroline Vandriel writes a monthly column discussing her latest read

The first time I drove through the Alberta Badlands, I had no idea what I was driving into. On a map it was the most direct way from where I was to where I needed to be. I was totally gobsmacked when the ground started dropping away into cracks and canyons. When I went there intentionally a few years later with two young nephews visiting from Ontario, I got to enjoy seeing their faces as their eyes bugged out in amazement. Bone Beds of the Badlands by Shane Peacock caught my eye because of the title, and captured my attention from beginning to end.

I set out to find a book that would appeal to boys in middle school, preferably Canadian. Buying books for my nephews had always been tricky, as reading wasn’t high on their lists of things to do. I think, however, that Bone Beds of the Badlands would have won them over immediately. The novel tells the story of four boys from Toronto who won a national science fair competition for their moving, growling dinosaur model, which Dylan, the narrator, readily admits that their dads started “helping” with, then took over the project. The prize for winning was a trip to anywhere in Canada – they chose the badlands, because of the dinosaurs.

As an Alberta resident, I enjoyed the written tour from Calgary to Drumheller, as Peacock gives pretty specific details that are recognizable. Having been to Drumheller and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, I easily recognized scenery and remembered my previous visits. This detailed aspect of the novel may not stir the heart as well for those who haven’t been to the area, but the setting comes alive, even without previous knowledge.

From time to time I felt irked by some of the snide comments made by the boys, but quickly realized that those comments were similar to those made by my young nephews. The boys from the big city are soon awed and appreciative of what Alberta has to offer. The adults, as seen from the boys’ perspective, are caricatures. The science teacher is annoying, his wife is whining, the good guy/hero wears a white stetson, while the villain dresses all in black and goes by the name “the Reptile.” The boys are more developed as characters, and the token girl character is also three dimensional. Their interactions seem, to me, to be very much how kids that age do act, think, and talk.

The plot is driven by the recent escape of a child-killing convict. His presumed presence in the Drumheller area causes the boys’ teacher to try to cut their trip short. Dorothy, the girl accompanying the boys on the trip as a local guide, longs for something big to happen, which also increases the tension and the pace of the story. There is plenty of excitement throughout, as well as some more mature introspection by the narrator.

Bone Beds of the Badlands is highly entertaining, beautifully descriptive, and as close to an outing in Drumheller as most of us can get this summer. It’s available in the Cloud Library from the public library’s website. The novel would work well as a read-aloud with the whole family, for those rainy days when you’re stuck inside, or as a backdrop for science or geography lessons.

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