Sunday, January 17, 2010

Remarkable Creatures, Remarkable Women

Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, has written a new novel and I'm thrilled to add it to our Staff Pick shelf at The Bookstore. It's hard to beat a book like Pearl Earring, and I don't think any of her other novels have matched it until now. Remarkable Creatures is a remarkable read.

It's a beautiful piece of historical fiction based on the life of Mary Anning, a 19th century working-class fossil hunter in southern England who discovered the world's first ichthyosaur at the age of eleven. Her discoveries are still on display at the Natural History Museum in London.

The book explores and celebrates Mary Anning's scientific curiousity, which was considered an improper pursuit for women of that era and an unacceptable challenge to religion. The book also examines the complicated, cross-cultural friendship and rivalry between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, an unmarried upper-class woman twenty years her senior. The women shared a fascination with fossils and the search for recognition in a world that marginalized women.

Book clubs will enjoy the distinctly feminist edge. The Geological Society of London didn't permit women members, so when Elizabeth Philpot seeks to participate in one of their meetings, she is forced to sit and listen on the backstairs.

Lord Henley, who owned the cliffs in which Mary Anning discovered her first ichthyosaur, attempted to claim ownership over the specimen: "It belongs to me. Besides which, Mary Anning is a female. She is a spare part. I have to represent her, as indeed I do many Lyme residents who cannot represent themselves." (It's enough to make you want to travel in time to give him a reparative kick to the shins. Represent this.)

Chevalier tosses out plenty of issues for great book club discussions. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot had a mutual admiration that crossed into envy. Have you ever had a moment with a dear friend that crossed over into a no-man's land of anger and jealousy? You instantly regret it but you don't know how to take your words back and retrieve what you had.

The religious issues that were stirred up by Mary Anning's scientific discoveries are still unresolved centuries later. We'd still like to be able to reconcile the bible's story of creation with our knowledge of evolution; we still wonder where God's hand ends and nature's begins.

Mary Anning's and Elizabeth Philpot's interest in fossils became more than just a hobby or a pastime. It became their vocation and their identity in a world where women weren't supposed to have either. However, they paid a price for their passion. Neither ever married and were viewed by closed-minded villagers with superstition and derision. Would you be willing to risk acceptance to pursue your passion? Do you have a secret interest that you're embarassed to embrace? What kind of childhood collections are hidden away in your closet that you can't bring yourself to throw out?

Speaking of childhood collections, I have a special connection to this book that made it particularly enchanting to me. My son had a sweet boyhood passion for dinosaurs. We took him to the Field Museum to welcome Dinosaur Sue, we played paleontonogist with coral, rocks and shells discovered on the beach, and we helped him amass an enormous collection of plastic toy dinosaurs at great cost from museum gift shops.

We were horribly permissive parents, allowing him to watch Jurassic Park as a mere toddler. Remember the scene when the velociraptor ripped off the lawyer's head as he sat in the outhouse? My son was completely unfazed. He turned to me and said very matter-of-factly: "Dino num-num." He slept in dino PJ's, he ate dino chicken nuggets, and proudly wore a brightly colored felt hat with Stegasaurus spikes. His toy dinos had nicknames like Steggie, Rexie, Cera and Compie. Ah, the wonder years.

After I read this book, I went down to the basement, dug out my son's old plastic bin of toy dinosaurs and arranged them all on the ping pong table. And then I had a really good cry over things of wonder -- like childhood curiosities, the passage of time, and evolution, both large and small.
My son even had an ichthyosaurus. Mary Anning would be proud.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.