Cover image for Pictures from an expedition
Pictures from an expedition
Smith, Diane, 1949-
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Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Viking, [2002]

Physical Description:
277 pages ; 22 cm
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Diane Smith is carving a niche for herself as an author of literary historical fiction set in the American West that features strong heroines, eccentric supporting characters, and surprising revelations from the natural sciences. Her new novel, set in 1876 right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, features an expedition into the Montana badlands with a group of individuals who have all suffered a significant loss during the Civil War. Their stories are told through the remembrances of Eleanor Peterson, a scientific illustrator in her late thirties, who travels to the Territories with her friend and mentor, an aging and utterly fascinating portrait painter named Augustus Starwood, to document a dinosaur fossil dig. What starts as a summer respite from the city is soon complicated by arguments over prevailing theories of evolution, by Indians' moving north after their defeat of Custer, and by rival scientists' attempting to steal what could be the largest dinosaur remains ever found. Ultimately, though, this is a novel of personal discovery, revealing the redemptive power of the land and the rivers that run through it. With humor and sharp insight, the novel reveals the potential all individuals have to discover love, however fleeting, and to rebuild their lives far from civilization. Pictures from an Expedition is sure to appeal to women and to all readers interested in the history of science and the American West.

Author Notes

Diane Smith has worked for the last fifteen years as a writer specializing in science and the environment. She lives in Livingston, Montana.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Following her acclaimed first novel, Letters from Yellowstone (1999), Smith returns to the late-nineteenth-century American West with a compelling "you are there" account of an independent young woman struggling to succeed in a harsh man's/no-man's world. Set in the Montana badlands a decade after the Civil War, the novel begins with fossil hunters stumbling upon the remains of possibly the largest dinosaur ever uncovered. Thrown in with a peripatetic crew of scientists and settlers, explorers and exploiters, Eleanor Peterson, a scientific illustrator hired to document their discoveries, recounts those daring days through her remembrances of the circumstances that inspired a series of paintings done by her traveling companion and mentor, Augustus Starwood, an eccentric artist with a passion for Shakespeare and a penchant for flowing silk robes. With its mysterious allusions to competing fossil hunters, marauding Indians fresh from their victory at the Little Bighorn, and eccentric wilderness denizens, Smith's latest historical fiction tempers its Indiana Jones-like qualities with the veracity of an eyewitness account of history in the making. --Carol Haggas

Publisher's Weekly Review

A 19th-century spinster joins a paleontological expedition as a scientific illustrator in this crisply intelligent and unsentimental novel. Smith's debut, Letters from Yellowstone, established its author as a skilled chronicler of the West more interested in intellectual advances than brute conquest; her second should cement her reputation. When the promise of a job at Yale lures Eleanor Peterson, then in her 30s, to join an expedition to the badlands of Montana, she brings along her friend and teacher, artist Augustus Starwood, an elderly Shakespeare-quoting eccentric who finds inspiration in the western landscape. Though he is the most flamboyant member of the expedition, Starwood is by no means its only memorable character. There is Patrick Lear, the group's leader, a stiff, secretive Yale professor; James Huntington, a boyishly enthusiastic gentleman collector; Little Bear, a white man who prefers to dress and pass as an Indian; hard-driving cook Maggie Hall and Maggie's son, Jeb. The Battle of Little Bighorn forces the motley crew to choose between digging up history and escaping to safety. The expedition does not last the summer, but Starwood's canvases survive to serve as the backbone of the novel, with Peterson in her old age sorting through them along with her memories. Smith layers her story like Montana rock, curious small fragments alternating with dramatic revelations. Her precise evocation of the stark western landscape matches her exacting portrayal of scientific debate and the assimilation of new theories. The end result is a very human picture of men and women puzzling out the past and the present as meticulously and artistically as Smith's remarkable heroine could wish. (Sept. 30) Forecast: Rather than subvert western clichs like McMurtry does, Smith sidesteps them. Her novel will appeal to readers of feminist literature, though it resists easy classification. Three-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Set during a paleontological expedition in Montana in 1876, this impressionistic novel is told through the journal of Eleanor Peterson, a scientific illustrator who has left the East with her friend and mentor, the elderly artist Augustus Starwood. The dig sponsored by Yale College and the thinly disguised figure of paleontologist Othniel Marsh (a.k.a. "the Captain"), whose ongoing feud with Edward Cope was the basis of David Wallace Rains's recent The Bonehunters' Revenge reveals the apparent skeleton of a Triceratops, a truly remarkable find. While the artists are in camp near Fort Benton, the Battle of the Little Bighorn breaks out, causing Sioux and Cheyenne to disperse, many north toward the Missouri River. The secrecy, skullduggery, and violence surrounding the Cope-Marsh dinosaur feud are in evidence. Ultimately, the book is about Eleanor's and Augustus's reactions to the West, a brave new world for them. Augustus decides to stay but is killed saving the life of a young boy. After returning East, Eleanor returns permanently a year later. Smith is the author of Letters from Yellowstone, which won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Book Award for Fiction. Recommended for public libraries. Jack Hafer, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1. Photograph, Woman with Bones To trace my own fateline backward, and identify where my path started its trajectory west, I simply need to recall the day the photograph you've labeled "Woman with Bones, Philadelphia" was taken in the library of the Academy. I have a weathered copy of that photograph in my own personal collection, but there are images from that day that will remain with me always: the empty, cavernous space with its sweet lingering scent of leather and wax; the light falling in hot, dusty patches from the windows high along one wall; the smoothly polished floor marked by dulled pathways where the shelving once stood. I remember, too, how I removed my spectacles, and how the sunlight caught the edge of one of the lenses and refracted into a fleeting rainbow of light. The photograph does not adequately capture the roomful of bones I was documenting for the Academy, but instead focuses directly on the woman I once was: no longer young, never particularly beautiful, immodestly staring into the camera without concern for what it revealed, much the way Augustus taught me to look directly at him while he worked. It was at the photographer's request that I have pushed back onto my haunches and quieted my hands, but as usual my shirtsleeves are rolled to the elbow and my apron is covered with dust and dark splotches of paint. My hair, already showing signs of gray, flames out around my head in a way that Augustus would have represented as a halo or a wild garland of weeds, but to me simply appears unruly. And, as you have noted in your citation, I am surrounded by very large bones. I was working on the Academy's hadrosaur at the time. Although they do not appear in the photograph, I would soon discover that two men were standing in the doorway, silently watching as I scrambled from one end of the expansive space to the other, placing each rib bone in descending order, trying to estimate, from the femur to the metatarsals, where and how to position the bones of the legs. This aspect of my work was always a bit like assembling an enormous puzzle, with each bone creating a picture of the beast, albeit a two-dimensional one, as if the creature had been pressed, like something fragile as a flower, for display under glass. As I arranged and rearranged the position of the bones, I tried to imagine how the creature might have lived and moved and should therefore be represented. It was amazing to me then, as it still is to me now, that science can discover everything it needs to know from the bones, but only if the men working on them are open to seeing what these relics in fact reveal. It is amazing, too, that it does not matter much if the bones once belonged to a man or a beast, since once the skin and flesh are stripped away, we are all more similar than unique in almost every single way. Darwin's work should not have come as a surprise in that regard. It was hot that day in the Academy, with the sun beating down on the emptying building, baking the cavernous library space like a kiln. I pushed at my damp hair and wiped my brow with my sleeve, and then reached out to adjust the location of a dorsal vertebra. Only then did I notice the two men intently studying me in much the same way that I was studying the bones. One man, the younger of the two, I had met before since he often visited the Academy, checking on the status of the fossils and inquiring after my work. This gentleman, who never told me his name although he made it clear he was from Yale College, presented himself one day in my small Academy workspace, and proceeded to handle the large tibia I was documenting, comparing it to the illustrations in my book. "This is excellent work," he told me at the time. "The Captain will be most pleased." He smoothed his hand over the bone. He had the look of a scholar, this man from Yale, with thin black hair combed straight back from his forehead, and pale, translucent skin suggesting not enough time interacting with the living, and too much time working with the skeletons of the dead. He wore a long black woolen coat and a gray silk scarf at his throat, even though the spring days were growing longer, hotter, and, as summer approached, more humid. And he was preternaturally still, slipping in and out of my workshop like a phantasm, his white hands soft and pliable, like the wax used to reconstruct and display the dead. I soon came to expect his visits, although I did not look forward to them. The other man who entered the library that day was a stranger, older than his friend, with a complexion suggesting years spent at sea. Unlike his long, lean companion, this second man was red-faced, short, and stocky, with a bushy brown beard and mustache and casual yet gentlemanly dress. This second man joined his friend and lifted one of the heavy fibulas, turning the leg bone carved from clay until it shimmered momentarily and then was lost again in the library's oblique light. "I like it," he exclaimed to his pale companion. The man's voice echoed through the empty library. "Excellent work. Well done. Well done." The man ran a thick finger over the bone and placed it carefully against the adjoining tibia to ascertain whether or not the bone had a proper fit. With great concentration, he rocked the tibia back and forth in the air. "A perfect articulation," he boomed again. "Very nice indeed." I began to thank him but quickly realized he was speaking not to me, but to his companion, the man in black, who managed a thin, weary smile as the other man continued to handle the large, stiff bone. I replaced my spectacles, satisfied that my employment at the Academy was about to reach a successful conclusion since even these gentlemen from Yale College appeared to be pleased with the quality of my work. As I prepared to remove myself from the room, the man with the beard bellowed again. "Now, this is interesting." He drew his companion's attention to the animal's foot. "It's missing a metatarsal," he declared. "Didn't my Claosaurus have a fourth metatarsal? What happened to the fourth metatarsal?" he demanded to know. His friend raised his eyebrows as if to say he hadn't seen it, but by then the gentleman with the beard had turned his attention to the curve of pubis I had smoothed out and appended to what had once been no more than a broken piece of bone. "Ah, but will you look at this," he said. "Excellent work. Excellent indeed." The man was practically shouting at his friend but since he was still not speaking to me, I started to retreat, stopping only long enough to remove my journal. Before I could reach it, however, he scooped it from the floor. "I need that," the bearded man announced. Roughly he riffled the pages. "Look," he said, speaking again to his companion as if I were inhabiting an invisible world. "See how she sizes those vertebrae, comparing the cervical to the dorsal to the caudal? Quite lovely. I'm very impressed. This is exactly what I need. My uncle would be most pleased." He flipped through a few more illustrations. "Where did she receive her training?" The man in black started to explain my brief career as an assistant to Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in New York and how, with no formal training, I had learned my craft working as an illustrator for the leading artist in the world of science, but his companion cut him short. "Yes, yes, that was a shame what happened to that project," the older man declared. "But what can you expect, dabbling with the politics of that city while trying to appease the curiosity of the masses? Have you seen the drawings of the creatures they were planning to construct? Pure flights of fancy, I can assure you. Those beasts are probably still buried out there somewhere in Central Park. Best to stay clear of all of that, would have been my advice. Still," he added thoughtfully, "she has a certain talent, there's no denying it. Feminine intuition, I suppose." Again, he turned his attention to the bones. "Forgive me," I said, inching toward the man with the beard, "but may I please have my journal? I am certain it will be of no interest to you." At these words, the man in black grew paler by the second, his eyes burrowing even deeper into his skull. But the other man, the red-faced one, was not in the least bit deterred. "Forgive me," the man blustered. "It is I who have been rude. Call me the Captain," he said. "Please. Accept my hand. And my apologies." The Captain reached his free hand across the skeleton, still holding my journal folded tightly to his chest. As he leaned toward me, I could feel myself pulling away, my head turning slightly, my body readying itself for retreat. But then, focusing on the apparent generosity of the man's offered hand, I, too, reached out, my fingers touching his. "How much do they pay you here?" the Captain demanded to know. "Excuse me?" "What is your salary?" he asked. Before I could respond, he added, "Can't be much, since even the Academy knows there is little value in these futile attempts at public displays." He said this with undisguised contempt. I understood the question but still I hesitated, uncertain about the nature of what he really wanted to know. Apparently the man took my confusion as reticence to negotiate, so he blustered right past my reserve. "It doesn't matter," the man announced. "Whatever it is, I'll double it. I have too much to worry about right now without adding quibbling about salaries to my list." At this proclamation, the Captain's slim companion sidled up to him and whispered something about the fact that I had only been hired to help with the Centennial Exhibition and then to document this skeleton in preparation for the Academy's move. Surely he must realize that I was not a regular employee of the Academy, but nothing more than a day laborer. "Doesn't matter," the Captain boomed. "I want her. I need her. Actually," he continued, pausing to compose his thoughts, "it is Patrick who needs her. Or he may never make it home." At this bit of news the young gentleman from Yale raised his chin ever so slightly and let out an almost silent "Ahhh" of understanding. Then he pointed that thin, reptilian smile of his in my direction. "I believe, Misssss..." The man in black hesitated. "Forgive me. I do not recall your name. It is Miss, is it not?" "Peterson," I told him. "Yes. Peterson, then. I believe you are being offered employment. Extremely well paying employment, I might add. Not the sort of day work you have been doing for the Academy, although it will certainly require the same sort of skills. If, that is, you are interested in working at Yale College." He said this as if I might have missed the point of what was being offered. As the man in black explained to me the conditions of my employ, and of the travel to the Territories initially involved, the Captain examined the repairs I had made to the animal's mandible. He grunted an approval, and then hoisted the large hadrosaur skull over his head and smiled warmly at the toothy piece of bone. "'Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,'" he said. And then the Captain's booming laugh echoed through the cavernous library, empty except for the two men, me, and the bones. --from Pictures from an Expedition by Diane Smith, Copyright © September 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission. Excerpted from Pictures from an Expedition by Diane Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.