Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 8, 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Before, during, and for some time after I wrote the picture book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon (FSG, 1999), I read as much about the fossil-hunter as I could find. Since she grew up in the first decade of the 1800s, one of many children in a poor family on the coast of England, she never learned to read or write very well, and most of what we know about her is hearsay passed down from scientists who bought the fossils she collected. Many of her finds are now displayed in the British Museum of Natural History, but she died in poverty and her grave site is thriftily shared with other family members. I saw it behind a church with ammonites by the stained glass windows. After being in the small town of Lyme Regis just an afternoon, I entered one shop with a reputation: Oh, one shopkeeper said, You must be the lady that cares about our Mary.

I still do, but when I heard of Tracy Chevalier’s recent novel based on her life, Remarkable Creatures, I wondered if it would read like old news to me. It did not. I had a great time reading it by the Maine coast on vacation. Tracy Chevalier’s different interpretations of familiar events usually seemed sensitive and logical. For instance, there’s contraversy about whether then-ten-year-old Mary or her older brother Joseph first spotted the head of the seventeen-foot-long ichthyosaur which started her career. Since I wanted my picture book to be based on this incident, rather than trying to cover the work of her lifetime, I had to make a decision. I went for Mary. It seemed likely that someone would want to give the boy in the family more credit, and even if Joseph did first spot it, she was the one who dedicated her life to searches and excavations. Tracy Chevalier decides that Joseph found it, but the legend-makers claimed Mary did, which was fine with him since he was embarrassed by what he considered Mary’s eccentricity.

Nobody knew how many children were in the family, as the mother had many babies who died very young and the family was too poor to keep a record, which the town didn’t demand. Tracy Chevalier doesn’t keep a tally of babies, but shows them as sickly and squalling, and establishes Mary’s distance from them. I love the voice she gives Mary, a practical girl, solidly working class. The novel alternates her point of view with that of Elizabeth Philpot, who is documented as a well educated woman in town. We see not only her interest in science, but how she grapples with the issues of religion in respect to evolving views of the age of earth. Mary grapples, too. After finding what she first believes to be a crocodile, she reflects: “The croc made me feel funny. While working on it I’d begun going to chapel more regularly, for there were times sitting alone in the workshop with it that I got that hollowed-out feeling of the world holding things I didn’t understand, and I needed comfort.”

The novel isn’t all natural history. We see Elizabeth Philpot living with sisters, all of whom experienced a reversal in fortune, and what becoming spinsters means to each. There’s a Jane Austen like sensitivity to class and romance. A touching chapter focuses on a younger sister’s hope. Elizabeth notes a man must not only care for a woman, but expects something of what her sisters might bring to a marriage. Elizabeth notices what “leads” people – with Mary, it’s her eyes, with some it’s their jaw, hands, legs, but with this courting man, it’s clothing. We feel the chill when he observes the fraying neckline of Elizabeth’s gown.

I’d say Tracy Chevalier, who is perhaps best known for Girl with Pearl Earring, also leads with remarkable eyes. She gives a painter’s attention to the small details that make up history. I came to this novel for Mary and the fossils, but I hope those who care less for them will enjoy this beautiful evocation of the pre-Victorian era in a small seaside town.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review, Jeannine! I am adding this to my GoodReads list right now – I loved your Mary Anning book, as we are all “girls who look under rocks” at our house…

  2. Love your review, Jeannine. I’m putting your book and Remarkable Creatures on reserve today!

  3. Both books sound fascinating!
    And I love that you’re known as “the woman who cares about our Mary.” 🙂

  4. Oh, Rose, thank you for that. I can still recall that woman’s red-gray hair and accent, giving me what felt like a blessing. I loved the appreciation in that town for Mary, who starting at age ten spent most of her life on the beach hunting for traces of what people thought of as monsters, and who never wore the right sort of gloves or bonnets. This quiet pride especially moved me as while we in New England like to think we’re open minded, I’ve been to some little libraries and historical museums where I practically had to pry some archives from hands of people who seemed to deem it best to hide away any traces of the eccentric: and genius and bold.

  5. Thanks so much for this thoughtful reading, Jeannine. Intriguing and, for me, reassuring–love seeing how you both got/had to play with unknowns for your stories.

  6. Thanks, Kate. I’m impressed if your wonderful guys consider themselves honorary girls who look under rocks. And I’m a huge fan of your daughter. I hope she finds her name in lots of books one day!

  7. Thank you, Laura. Sending my best wishes for your fall.

  8. Thanks Becky. Somewhere Tracy Chevalier wrote wisely and movingly (um, can I say that?) about how she blends fiction and history. I’ve got a busy week, but when I can I’ll look through my piles and see if I can send it on to you.

  9. I just started this yesterday, and I’m enjoying it very much so far. (Oh, that fraying neckline!)
    And I love it that they recognized you in that way!

  10. That would be great! 🙂

  11. Fraying necklace, gloves clipped for collecting, a sister you love and who you want to be happy: loved the tension.
    And I’ll remember that woman who recognized me forever.

  12. I first heard of your post today via Twitter (Becky Levine posted a link). I am very curious about this book after reading your entry, especially after reading that Tracy “gives a painter’s attention to the small details that make up history.” Thank you for sharing!

  13. Thanks Jeannine for sharing! Looks like fascinating reading.

  14. Thanks, Jeni! It is some of the small moments I find most moving.

  15. I read slowly for the past three nights, sorry to see it end.
    But of course a huge pile awaits. Just not set in Lyme Regis!


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