Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Book Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
"She sells seashells by the seashore."
That tongue-twister was inspired by a real woman, Mary Anning. Despite being very poor and uneducated (at the beginning of the book she's illiterate), young Mary Anning of Lyme, England had a real eye for fossils. She doesn't know exactly what these things are that she is collecting (yes, they are known to be fossils, but of what) but visitors collect them as souvenirs, some scientists study them, and Mary needs to do what she can to contribute to the Anning household. Also, she likes collecting them.
Elizabeth Philpot and her fellow spinster sisters move to Lyme after their brother's marriage, and she too becomes fascinated with the fossils. She meets young Mary and helps her to organize, to learn to read, to sell her finds, and they become bosom friends. Eventually, Mary discovers her first "monster" (dinosaur), and then another, and another. The discoveries change her life. And her and Elizabeth's friendship.
Mostly this is the story of a friendship. There isn't a lot of detail about paleontology (not much was known), although there is discussion of how these discoveries were impacting Christianity in a big way. The story was completely fascinating. The period details felt very authentic (if with a dash of anachronism when it came to the science). I felt like I was back in Jane Austen's time, the dirt and the chill and the wet were very real. I liked that is was mostly told from Elizabeth's point of view. The life of a middle-class spinster at this time was lonely, quiet, and slightly desperate, all of which were captured well. While she was not the primary person in this fossil story, she is an interesting narrator. It was a riveting story I read in just a couple of days.
Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur.
I checked this book out from the library on my cruise ship!