Title: Remarkable Creatures: A Novel
Author: Tracy Chevalier
October 26, 2010;$15.00US
From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear is different. Though poor and uneducated, she learns on the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast that she has a unique gift: "the eye" to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip -- and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster and also a fossil hunter, becomes Mary Anning's unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.
My Take: This story is a little bit of history mixed with some fiction. In a small southern English village on the coast lived a little girl named Mary Anning. Mary was quite remarkable simply because she was struck by lightening as a baby and lived while the others standing under the tree died. Perhaps because of this trauma or perhaps because she simply is remarkable, Mary had the eye to distinguish regular rocks from fossils on the beach. Poverty stricken, Mary and her brother spent their days on the beach collecting "curries" or small fossils. Mary would then spend her days cleaning them with a knife and selling them at her father's shop.
Elizabeth Phillpot moved to the coastal village as a spinster with her spinster sisters. It is here that Mary and Elizabeth become friends. Both have remarkable gifts for finding different kinds of fossils, although Mary's seems quite innate. It becomes apparent to Elizabeth, who has some aristocracy in her blood, that the educated world about her (London) has very little understanding regarding fossils and are uncomfortable with the idea that God may have created creatures that are now extinct which may lead to the conclusion that God made mistakes. Perhaps people will become extinct when God no longer wishes them on the planet. Quite frightening of an idea and rather blasphemous at the time.
Through Elizabeth's connections, Mary is introduced to educated and published men who are supposed to be quite learned regarding fossils. Mary begins finding monsters that have never been seen in the living animal kingdom. She digs them out or hires some quarry workers to dig them out then sells them to collectors who promptly claim them as their own and/or sell them for a much higher profit. Mary Anning's name is seldom mentioned in the history of fossils but she was a pioneer through necessity. Eventually, her name becomes a little well known but she never achieves the notoriety she deserves.
Told with honesty, wit, and clever prose, this is the Mary's story with literary liberties taken.