Thursday, March 3, 2011

Written in Bone Review

Book talk: There are stories waiting under the ground.  Our ancestors buried their history along with dead, and for those who have been trained to read the signs, a pile of bones can be a buried treasure.  Find out how to read a jaw bone to see the infections and pain hidden there.  Discover how a spine can reveal a life of hard labor.  Bones can even tell you if a person who died hundreds of years ago was left or right handed!  Take a tour of the harsh life of early settlers viewed through the evidence that it left in their very bones.

Rocks my socks:   Thanks to college roommates who got me hooked on CSI and Bones I've often heard people say things like 'the leg bone isn't even fused--this body was only a child!' in very dramatic voices but now I actually know what that looks like.  I now know how they can tell all these things from looking at bones and thanks to the ample and clearly labeled pictures I have seen many of them for myself.  What previously seemed vaguely magical to me now actually makes perfect sense.  I could also see using this book in some great cross-curriculum teaching.  They get a physicist in there at one point to develop an x-ray that can penetrate lead so they can see inside lead coffins to know where to insert a tube to attempt to get a sample of 17th century air without damaging the bones inside.  They have mathematicians calculate how heavy the lead coffins will be and have historians find documents that lead to identifying the bodies.  At the end they have artists create a sculpture based on a skull they find.  The archaeology is fascinating too.  They find the outline of the Jamestown fort by the discoloration of the soil where the posts were.  And because this book was made for kids it was all beautifully formatted and explained in a way that I could actually understand.  Ah the many perks of working in an elementary school library!

Rocks in my socks: Never have I appreciated modern dentistry more than I did while reading this book.  The horrible abscesses and infections and pain described made me want to immediately go brush and floss--seriously they should put excerpts of this up in lobbies for dentists, this will be far more effective than fishtanks at getting kids to brush!  There was also an indentured servant who was only a teenager found and listening to them describe all the evidence of pain and abuse around him was a bit much for me.  On the other hand they found a guy whose family motto was apparently 'deeds are masculine, words are feminine' and I was actually hoping for a bit more gore and pain around his death.  That's what you get for being sexist!   Squeamishness aside, there were a couple of times that I thought the text was over simplifying things for its audience such as when it described John Smith as Pocahontas's 'friend.'  If kids can handle those tooth infections, they can handle the ugly truth about history as well.

Every book its reader: I'd give it to anyone 5th grade and up with a sense of morbid curiosity or anyone who's ever wondered what the heck they are saying on Bones and wants it laid out for them in a clear, simple fashion (the main forensic anthropologist in the novel even works at the Smithsonian!)

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out from your local library

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