The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey
Date: May 30th, 2006
Rating: I’d go there again!
I don’t usually read a whole heck of a lot of non-fiction; however, I mediate the non-fiction book club at work, so I’ve necessarily had to branch out from my genre junkie ways. Happily, I loved my most recent foray into the non-fiction world and I can’t wait to discuss with my book club.
The Devil’s Teeth is part investigative journalism and part travelogue. On the surface this book promises to be a fascinating look at great white sharks. I was expecting bloody shark attacks, and to an extent I found what I was looking for. What I did not expect was the setting itself to take on a character of it’s own. The Farallon Islands, located off the coast of California, took centre stage, which makes me want to label this more of a travel memoir over anything else. Readers learn about this desolate and harsh hub of shark research and it’s fascinating history. I was completely drawn in by Casey’s description of these islands and the lengths that researchers would go to study the marine life as well as the unique birds that would flock there. The history of these islands was totally engrossing and it was fascinating to learn about the previous inhabitants of the islands; my personal favourite was the “eggers” that decimated the bird population at one point in an effort to supply the demand for eggs when chickens couldn’t be found. Ironically, it’s not only sharks that have become endangered at the Farallon Islands, but rather a whole host of creatures over the islands varied history.
Now with regards to sharks; they were what initially drew me to this book. I’ve long had a fascination with sharks, as I am sure many have considering the popularity of Shark Week. I have to admit I was expecting more about the great white sharks at the Farallon Islands and about sharks in general. I would have thought there would have been more of an overview or historical perspective of sharks; however, the anecdotes that Casey shared from the island’s researchers more than made up for this lack. The short snippets that Casey shared about the shark encounters at the islands was interesting and readable and I found myself flying through the pages.
What was also engaging about The Devil’s Teeth was Casey’s presentation of the researchers on the island and other people her paths crossed with. Since I’m a fiction reader I tend to like more character driven type stuff, so I think part of why I liked The Devil’s Teeth so much was because Casey filled her writing with characters; specifically, Peter Pyle, Scot Anderson, the Browns, Ron the diver and so on. These characters were well drawn out, to the point where readers are given complete physical descriptions. From reading other reviews of The Devil’s Teeth I can understand why there was some criticism of Casey’s emphasis on the “rugged good looks” of the men she encountered, but from my perspective, this attention to detail was what made this book more than dry, scientific tome on great white sharks.
Lastly, I think I have to address the ethical concerns of this book. Casey becomes completely obsessed with the Farallon Islands, to the extent that she jumps at the chance to return there despite the fact that she’ll be breaking lots of rules to do so. On one hand, Casey’s actions are hard to understand, especially when she decides to captain a book with very little nautical know-how. To me this seems foolhardy and you could see that it wasn’t going to lead to anything good. In fact, the head of the shark project ends up losing his job after Casey’s interference; it was a blatant disregard of the rules for Casey to return to the Farallons. What wasn’t addressed was Casey’s take on how she feels about being part of the reason that someone lost their job. When this was related it seemed a tad cool blooded and I wonder how the author truly felt. On the other hand, you can’t place all the blame on Casey since she certainly wasn’t sneaking onto the island by herself. At the end of the day, we’re only getting a written account of what went down during that last shark season, so in a sense readers need to keep their perspective. What I do know, is that this controversy with Casey will generate some great book club discussion, so I’ll be happy about that.