Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable CreaturesPerhaps it was because of what had just happened to me, of the lightning that comes from inside, which made me open up to larger, stranger thoughts.  Looking up at the stars so far away, I begun to feel there was a thread running between the earth and them.  Another thread was strung out too, connecting the past to the future, with the ichie at one end, dying all that long time ago and waiting for me to find it.  I didn’t know what was at the other end of the thread.   These two threads were so long I couldn’t even begin to measure them, and where one met the other, there was me.  My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating.

“Everything is so big and old and far away,” I said, sitting up with the force of it.  “God help me, for it does scare me.”

Remarkable Creatures is a novel based on the real-life story of two early 19th century women in England.  Mary Anning is a young girl from a poor family, living in the coastal town of Lyme.  She survived being struck by lightning as a child, which marks her as special to the townspeople.  She has a gift for finding fossils uncovered by storms, which she learns to clean and sell from her father, a cabinet maker.  When her father dies suddenly, the family is left deeply in debt, and become more dependent than ever on money raised by selling Mary’s fossils to tourists.

Elizabeth Philpot is a quiet lady of the gentry, not beautiful nor rich enough to find a husband.  When her parents die, she and her unmarried sisters are sent to live in Lyme in order to save money.  He and his wife stay in London in the family home, him working as a lawyer, and supporting his sisters with an allowance.

Elizabeth finds herself drawn to the ocean, and like Mary, to the fossils that she finds.  Away from the strict social mores of London, she becomes more confident and secure in her own beliefs and knowledge.

Mary and her brother find a fossil that looks something like a crocodile, but different enough that it is a curiosity, and they are able to sell it for quite a bit of money, encouraging her passion for the search.  The ‘monsters’ that she finds shake up the town with their strangeness.  If the fossil is not a crocodile, and looks like no other living creature, then what could it be?  The discussion of extinction brings the question of God’s plan into question.

Tracy Chevalier is the author of the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was a wonderfully told story of class, gender, and power issues surrounding the paining of the famous work by VermeerRemarkable Creatures tackles these same issues, surrounding the early days of geology and paleontology, and the two women who had an important influence on the world around them.

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