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Cannonball Read #29: Remarkable Creatures

02/28/2010

Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures is set in the early 19th century on the coast of England. Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters are relocated to this area of England from London by their brother upon his engagement. This area of the country is less expensive than London, and less exciting and entertaining as well. Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret, having been the sister with the most prospects in London, is the most unhappy about the change, but Elizabeth and her other sister, Louise, manage to make do in this small town.

Louise finds interesting flora in the area and turns to gardening, but Elizabeth occupies herself in a different manner. She hunts fossils. The area of Lyme, and the surrounding coast, are particularly special geological areas. Fossils are frequently found on the beaches and are sold to tourists by the locals as “curies.” One skilled curie finder Elizabeth meets is Mary Anning, who survived a lightning strike as a baby.

They say I was a quiet, sickly child before the storm, but after it I grew up lively and alert. I cannot say if they’re right, but the memory of that lightning still runs through me like a shiver. It marks powerful moments of my life…I feel an echo of the lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says ‘Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach.’ That is why I am a hunter: to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day.

The time period in which these fossils are found is pre-Darwin, so the townspeople don’t quite know what to make of them. Some they call “crocodiles” and others “headless snakes.” We don’t find out until about 2/3 of the way through the book that the “crocodile” is really an Ichthyosaurus . Mary makes a number of important finds on the beach.

These included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside of Germany, and some important fish fossils. (from wikipedia)

But the story is about more that just the fossils. We see how uncertain the people are about extinction and God’s will, how women are treated, social conventions, scientific reasoning, as well as reading about a friendship between two women of different social classes.

Mary is young when the book begins, but she is befriended by Elizabeth as they scour the beach for fossils. She teaches Elizabeth all she knows about the fossils that she had learned from her late father, a cabinetmaker who looked for curies in his spare time. They spar with another local curie seeker, and negotiate with the local gentry, Lord Henley, as he purchases the first of the Ichthyosaurus fossils Mary finds. Mary’s mother, Molly, a strong woman, negotiates a good price for the sale, and they keep the family out of the poorhouse.

Initially, the contrast between Elizabeth and Mary is one of age, class, and education. Later, they come into conflict as a fossil seeker from London comes to town, and Mary falls in love with him. Colonel Birch manages to have Mary show him many good fossils to be found, and takes advantage of her, not physically, but by keeping Mary from earning money for her family as she points out all of the good ones for him to find.

Elizabeth goes to battle for Mary and her family in the limited way that women can interact with male society at the time. She does manage to get Lord Birch to help the family, and this success gives her confidence for the final fight of the novel. You see, the famed anatomist, Georges Cuvier, has called into question the validity of Mary’s find, the Ichthyosaurus by stating that it is not one, but two fossils combined together. Elizabeth realizes that she must take matters into her own hands again, to save her estranged friend’s reputation and the story of the Ichthyosaurus itself.

Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl With A Pearl Earring and other historical novels, is very good at giving the reader a sense of immediacy. This is no dusty history, the motivation of the women makes sense to any modern reader without seeming out of context. The two main characters, Mary and Elizabeth, are very different, and their alternating chapters speak with their different voices well. I was intrigued enough to go and research the real Mary Amming and Elizabeth Philpot, and I recommend this book, and the real story, to everyone.

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