By: Kathryn Lasky Knight
Pocket Books: New York, NY
This is a little gem of novel that was written more
than twenty years ago, but still affords a great deal of reading pleasure.
When I first read it at its publication, I was captivated by the
characterization of the heroine, children’s book author and illustrator—and
newly widowed—Calista Jacobs, and her twelve-year-old son, Charley. They
were not stock characters in an adventure/mystery/romance, but lovingly
rendered individuals living through the horror of the untimely and violent
death of a beloved husband and father.
I also found the archaeological background of the plot
to be reasonably well-grounded in the continuing search—some would say
obsession—for proof of a pre-Clovis culture in the Americas—that is, a
PaleoIndian culture pre-dating approximately 10-12,000 B.C. There was also
a healthy dollop of academic jealousy, in-fighting and general skullduggery,
along with nefarious conspiracies involving nuclear testing, the CIA, the
National Geographic Society, and antiquities blackmarketing out of Harvard’s
Peabody Museum. All that in a slim 250 page paperback!
But I found an additional joy in this re-reading of
Trace Elements—and a most unanticipated one at that. The book proved to
be something of a time machine, taking me back to the popular culture of the
1980s and boomer nostalgia, as author Knight weaves into her narrative
references to Carl Sagan, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Julia Child, Sandra
Dee, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, and even Annette Funicello! Almost as
much fun was reading of the cutting-edge technology of the early 1980s, as
Charley, something of a computer wunderkind, holds forth on such
subjects as floppy disks, “Visicalc,” and dot matrix printers.
In addition, the author gives the reader some very
interesting background and insider information on the fascinating world of
writing and publishing children’s books.
But the story in and of itself is a good one, told in
graceful prose by author. The stage is set with the death of Harvard
physicist Tom Jacobs—death by rattlesnake bite—on the high Nevada desert
where he was applying a revolutionary invention of his—the “time
slicer”—that enables highly precise geological dating by measuring minute
magnetic variations in trace elements. He was apparently applying this
device to a remote important PaleoIndian site called Rosestone. Devestated
by the death of her husband, Calista also grows to question its supposed
accidental nature, and when a little over a year later, the Rosestone Site
project director also dies of a rattlesnake bite, the coincidence seems too
great to believe. With the aid of Smithsonian archaeologist Archie Badwin,
Calista and Charley follow subtle clues that begin to unravel multiple plots
involving archaeological fraud as well as national security secrets and
This was the first of a brief series of mysteries
involving Calista and the precocious Charley, but I believe it to be the
best. The book has been out of print for years but can still be obtained at
Amazon.com for pennies. Three trowels for this golden oldie.
Back to Review Page