Reviewed by: Gary Sorkin, Pacific Book Review
Russell Ferrell has written a book on the level of a doctorial dissertation about the lives and careers of two extraordinary citizens, Cephis Hall and Sid Love. As stated by the author, “Their story is unique mainly because they themselves are unique. Cephis and Sid are men of uncommon fortitude and rectitude that stood their ground against overwhelming odds and won – a David and Goliath story if ever there was one.”
Russell Ferrell has a truly multi-dimensional writing technique of leaving “No stones unturned,” which is ideal for describing a dinosaur hunter such as Cephis Hall. By this I mean Ferrell has what might seem to be a rambling, gregarious and verbose style of telling the reader so much information, and proceeding down so many tangents of interest; one may find his work to be scattered at times. However he pulls it together like a virtuoso conductor of an orchestra resulting in a singular message of fortitude against uncommon odds.
As the life quest of digging for the distinctive black color of fossilized remains from the Mesozoic Era conflicted with private land rights of one of America’s largest corporations, Weyerhaeuser, the ownership of the bones became a legal issue, as well as trespassing; jeopardizing the path for scientific discovery by Hall and Love. The legal questions involving the precedents of law specific to private land use for fossil gathering with respect to the landowner had not been fully exercised in courts. “If a landowner gave a fossil prospector oral permission to search for fossils on his land, is that tantamount to conveying ownership of any fossilized material recovered on that same private land?” As an excerpt states, “Weyerhaeuser was in the paper and building materials business – obscure and dormant fossils lying around on their vast timberlands were the least of their concerns. It was simply inconceivable for these production-minded, profits-driven, cost-conscious, efficiency-obsessed timber magnates to associate a world class fossil specimen with some diminutive, backwoods hillbilly. In their minds, Hall was not a legitimate scientific-minded explorer and excavator of the natural world, but a mere simpleton and charlatan.” This laid the foundation for the epic conflicts of issues to come.
Further complicating their task, Hall and Love needed the help of scholars, so they enacted the help of paleontologists Dr. Langston and Dr. Pittman from the University of Texas. It was with their efforts the bones of Acrocanthosaurus, a regal theropod from the lower Cretaceous Period, the last period of theMesozoic Era, between the Jurassic and Tertiary periods, were assembled. This monster was clearly at the top of the food chain of the North American plains; a predator defining the word.
What struck me most about Acrocanthosaurus: The Bones of Contention was the depth of knowledge Russell Ferrell so seamlessly and eloquently layers into the substructure of his writing; resulting in a book that educates while entertains. His passion for writing echoes Hall’s passion for fossil hunting and together the story takes on a life of its own. It is a very formidable book, requiring much time to page through, just like the task of digging through fields with small hand tools searching for fossilized discoveries. The reader is rewarded with a jewel of a discovery within the book; a series of photographs in the middle of the book which by then becomes extremely relevant and appreciated, forming a visual encounter with the beasts of the past and the heroes that brought them to our awareness. I can say that Russell Ferrell is truly the unsung hero, bringing this story to all of our attention, as a tribute to the work of Cephis Hall and Sid Love, and an inspiration to all that are confronted with behemoths of monetary powers confronting them. As for me, I’d rather confront Weyerhaeuser, than an Acrocanthosaurus any day!