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Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
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Jun 28, 10

bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read from June 26 to 27, 2010

"Remarkable Creatures" could refer to the fossils found by Mary Anning along a rocky, windswept English beach or it could refer to Anning herself and her friend and champion Elizabeth Philpot, for these were, indeed, extraordinary women. At a time - the late 18th and early 19th centuries - when women were only allowed one honorable role in life, that of wife and mother, these two women carved their own places and made their marks on fossilized (pun intended) society.

Mary Anning was struck by lightning when she was still a baby. Like a later fictional character, she survived her encounter with this unearthly power but without the lightning mark on her forehead. Instead, she gained "the eye", an ability to see things that were overlooked by others. (Whether this really had anything to do with the lightning strike is debatable, but she seems to have thought it did.) What that meant in practical terms was that she became a prodigious hunter of fossils. She was able to see their shapes among the rocks where other people saw only rocks. It helped that she had an absolute passion for fossils.

Her passion was matched by Elizabeth Philpot. The spinster, Philpot, along with her two sisters, was removed from London to Lyme, Anning's home, by their brother when he inherited the family home. It turned out to be a very happy move. The area was full of the fossils that fascinated Elizabeth, and although she didn't have "the eye", she, too, became a successful hunter especially of ammonites and fish. The fish particularly interested her.

It was Anning, however, who made spectacular finds of ichthyosauri and plesiosauri, new creatures theretofore unknown to science. Of course, she was a woman, and even though she found the bones, she was never, in her lifetime, given the credit that she deserved.

Chevalier has sought to remedy that injustice with her book. She has chronicled the life of Anning from her poverty-stricken roots to her renown among the geologists and fossil-hunters of her day, but, most of all, she had chronicled her enduring friendship with Elizabeth Philpot and Philpot's attempts to make sure that Anning was not slighted by the famous men whom she had helped. It is an engrossing story, the kind of story that Chevalier tells so very well.

This is the second of her books that I have read, the first being "Girl with a Pearl Earring." After this, I believe I will seek out others of her works for reading.
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