Book Review: Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) made a living from beach combing in the area of Lyme Regis on the South English coast.  For long hours in the sun, rain or cold, she looked for “curies” (curiosities) to sell to tourists.  Her family often depended on the sale of her finds to put food on the table.  Having an extraordinary eye and determination, she found fossils and skeletons of extinct prehistoric animals that revolutionized the prevalent theories about creation and the evolution of species.  

This historical fiction novel by the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on true characters and events.  When personal details are scarce, the facts may languish in textbooks; or, an author may decide to extensively research the facts, let the imagination fill in the rest, and call it historical fiction.  That way, readers can still learn about the history and appreciate the accomplishments of the personalities involved.  Tracy Chevalier’s research and knack for story-writing produced a novel that manages to make bones and rocks quite interesting.

This novel also tells the story of the uncommon friendship between uneducated, working-class Mary Anning and educated, middle-class Elizabeth Philpot in conventional 19th century England.  Elizabeth challenged the gender and social class prejudices that prevented Mary’s admission into the white, Anglican, male scientific community.  In the end, Mary proved the most eminent expert wrong. 

Mary and Elizabeth’s encounters with the remains of extinct jurassic beasts led them to ask significant questions about religion, creationism, and evolution, to the annoyance of the local vicar.  They theorized that God’s creating the earth in 6 days should be seen allegorically rather than literally, because if rocks were created before animals, how to explain animals fossilized in rocks?  If God is perfect, then why are some of his created beings so imperfect that they ceased to exist?  And if some animals can become extinct, could it happen to us?  How would you answer?  Feel free to comment.

  Mary Anning with her dog Tray, her pixel and bag of “curries”           

  Drawing and letter by Mary Anning describing her find of an unknown “monster”