Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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Trace Elements by Kathryn Lasky Knight

Reviewed on: June 1, 2008


Pocket Books:  New York, NY
1987 (pb)

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 cover-ups.

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 for pennies.  Three trowels for this golden oldie.