Book Reviews

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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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Picnic in the Ruins by Todd Robert Petersen

Reviewed on: June 1, 2022


Counterpoint Press:  Berkeley, CA
2021 (PB)

Quentin Tarantino’s classic film, “Pulp Fiction” meets a thoughtful and provocative analysis of the ethics of archaeological resource management in this highly entertaining yet highly disturbing tale of high adventure set on the Arizona-Utah border. 

Princeton archaeology Ph.D. candidate Sophia Shepard finds herself living in a trailer park in southern Utah, conducting dissertation research on the ethics of prehistoric resource management as practiced by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  While Sophia’s fellow doctoral classmates have landed high profile fieldwork opportunities around the world, Sophia, due to a momentary lapse in academic judgement when she disparagingly referred to a Princeton visiting scholar’s views of UNESCO World Heritage Sites designations as “McHeritage,” believes she is fortunate to be steered to this less than scintillating project when she might have been summarily drummed out of the archaeology fraternity.

As Sophia slogs away at her project, she attracts the interest and attention of a young (and handsome) NPS ranger named Paul Thrift, whose unconventional inclinations mesh with Sophia’s findings of the unintentional degradation of cultural sites managed by the Federal government – the possibility that the very existence of national park and monument designation invited their destruction.

Concurrent with Sophia’s research efforts, a very different set of circumstances are taking place in that border area:  An amateur archaeologist/artifact collector, apparently a suicide, is in reality the victim of a homicide clumsily committed by Byron and Lonnie Ashdown, a couple of small-time and incredibly inept crooks who have been hired to steal a set of maps of ancient archaeological sites; a shady contract killer Nick “Scissors” Szezesny, hired by a mysteriously powerful entity to acquire the maps, must take matters into his own hands when he learns that Lonnie and Byron have retained one of the maps for their own larcenous purposes; German tourist named Reinhardt Kupfer, a hopeless romantic when it comes to the lore and legends of the ancient American West and disillusioned by the commercialism of the “Ranches, Relics and Ruins” bus tour, leaves the tour group and gets enmeshed in the violent events that occur as these various characters, including Sophia and Paul, converge in the desert high country that shelter heretofore hidden archaeological sites and treasures.  Throw into the mix an array of survivalists, polygamists, conspiracy theorists and a desert town full of Cliven Bundy types, and you have the makings of a rollicking thriller, whose serious discussions of the ethics of archaeology and cultural resource management and the question “Who owns history” are not out of place. 

This is a wonderful piece of fiction, as expansive in scope as the desert Southwest itself, and populated by a collection of remarkable characters— some noble, some endearing, some frightening, and some all of the above.  Four trowels for Picnic in the Ruins.