The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson (1976)

ShoresofKansasCover blurb

IN THE PRESENT

Grant Ryals was a world-famous figure, the man who had mastered time travel, and who now was surrounded by the ravenous forces of commercial greed and by the man-eating appetites of “celebrity groupies,” women who wanted to add him to their list of conquests at any price.

IN THE PREHISTORIC PAST

Grant Ryals was the only human being on the face of planet Earth, walking through the great, trackless landscape of jungle, swamp and sea that was Kansas millions of years ago, and facing the hugest and most hideous carnivorous creatures that had ever ruled the globe.

In the present, Grant Ryals was fighting for his manhood. In the past, he was fighting for his life. And he did not know which was the more dangerous…

My thoughts

One of the perks of haunting used-book stores is that occasionally you come across a long-forgotten title that turns out to be a surprisingly good read. The Shores of Kansas is one of those titles. It’s a flawed book, but still an entertaining one.

Grant Ryals is one of a handful of people who can travel through time simply by willing themselves into the past. But even among this group Grant is special, because he is the only person who can travel to the age of dinosaurs. Equipped with a movie camera and a medieval war axe for protection, Grant made two prehistoric wildlife documentaries and then used the profits to set up an institute to research and publicize his findings.

Grant is one of the most famous people on the planet when the novel opens, but the reclusive time-traveler isn’t adapting well to his celebrity. He is constantly hounded by the media and by women want “to add him to their list of conquests.” The greedy people who run his institute are trying to maximize their profits while minimizing the center’s scientific research. And a rookie female time traveler is apprenticing to journey back to the dinosaur era, but Grant isn’t sure he wants the company.

The Shores of Kansas isn’t as much about dinosaurs as it is about a man trying to come to grips with the decisions he has made in life. Most of the novel is set in the present – the “present” in this case being the 1970s – with the excursions to the Mesozoic Era being only rare events. Still, the time-travel sequences are well-executed with an impressive amount of research put into them. In a few pages, the author manages to paint a believable prehistoric world with dinosaurs that behave like real animals rather than movie monsters, and even modern readers will find the descriptions of the terrible reptiles are not far off from how we view them today.

The passages set in the prehistoric past are so well done that it’s a shame the author didn’t use them more often. He instead focuses on Grant’s inner turmoil as a celebrity who doesn’t want to be a celebrity. The Shores of Kansas has literary ambitions, and sometimes it succeeds, but sometimes it doesn’t. The most glaring problem is the author’s sexism. Women are constantly referred to as “girls” and are often depicted as emotionally and intellectually shallow, leading to howlers like this sentence, describing a group of kids playing with a toy plumbing set: “All the boys were absorbed, and the girls were equally interested, if only for the shiny beauty of the copper tubings and the brass fittings.”

Sexism aside, the novel remains a good short read, weighing in at about 200 pages. The Shores of Kansas tries to be many things, but it works best as a tribute to the long lost Mesozoic world, which is described so poetically at times that readers will understand why Grant feels more at peace among dinosaurs than among humans.

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