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Remarkable Creatures    by Tracy Chevalier order for
Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Remarkable Creatures takes place in England in the early nineteenth century. The two main characters, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, are intelligent women who become extremely interested in fossils which they find on the beach in Lyme Regis.

Women of that time were restricted in what they were allowed to do: spending time unchaperoned with an unrelated man would destroy a reputation; most jobs were out of reach; travelling without a companion, or even walking alone in the larger cities, was unacceptable or downright dangerous behavior; and most women, if they were educated at all, were not taught science. They weren't considered capable of understanding science and certainly didn't need to learn anything other than what would make them good housewives.

Mary comes from a poor working class family, and because she is one of the few survivors among the many children born to her parents and because she shows an interest, her father teaches her what he knows about gathering curies on the beach. This is the hobby that he loves, although his real work is carpentry. The family has a small business selling these bits of fossils to tourists. Mary has an unusual ability to find unique intact fossils, which seem to be of previously unknown animals.

Elizabeth has been raised in an upper class home, but her parents have died. When her brother marries, he wants to live alone with his new wife and family. Elizabeth and her two sisters therefore have no choice but to move to Lyme Regis, where their brother can afford to rent a house for them and they can live on their small income. At first depressed by the move, Elizabeth begins to love the beach and the fossils that she finds there. When she goes to see Mary's father about purchasing a cabinet in which to display her fossils, she becomes acquainted with Mary, who is still a child. She encourages Mary to learn to read at Sunday school, and as Mary grows up, the two become friends.

The book starts slowly while we're introduced to these two characters, the problems they face, and the controversy that existed at that time between the discovery of the bones of ancient creatures that didn't exist any more and religious beliefs that the world had been created by God just a few thousand years before. The plot becomes more interesting, though, as Mary starts to find the remains, preserved in rock, of more and more intact creatures with no living representatives. Men of science begin to take an interest and even to claim some of Mary's discoveries as their own. Elizabeth defends her friend in ways that are looked down on by many of her own class, and Mary acts in ways that compromise her reputation as well as the financial well-being of her family.

I think that had I known when I started the book that Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpott were actual historical figures, I would have become enthralled with the story much sooner than I did. It seemed so unbelievable at first that this uneducated woman, Mary Anning, could have had such a profound effect on archeology in the early nineteenth century. I like to read novels without knowing too much about them, but having noticed after reading a hundred pages or so the list of further reading at the back of the book, I became much more interested in this fictional representation of these two women. The remarkable creatures in the title refer to the fossils, but can certainly describe these two women, too.

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