More fact-based historical fiction from Chevalier (Burning Bright, 2007, etc.): the vivid, rewarding tale of 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning.
Before Darwin’s findings rocked the world, a small group of scientists were already—in some people’s view, blasphemously—questioning the age of the Earth, the finality of God’s creation and the possibility of an ancient world before man. In young Mary’s case, however, finding fossils quite simply keeps her family from the workhouse. Raised in Lyme Regis on the English coast, she’s trained by her father to spot what they call “curies” (curiosities): ammonites, belemnites, fossilized fish on the beach and embedded in cliffs that the family sells to tourists during the summer. Paired with Mary’s narrative is that of Elizabeth Philpot, dispatched with her two sisters from London to the coast when their brother marries. Elizabeth (also a historical figure, like most of the characters) is impressed by Mary’s sharp eye and considerable knowledge about fossils, remarkable qualities for an illiterate girl. Plain, outspoken and without the substantial income that would make those failings palatable, Elizabeth is resigned to spinsterhood, but Lyme offers outlets for her curiosity about the natural world, as well as the satisfaction of watching a burgeoning science develop. She forms an unlikely alliance with Mary as they comb the beach together, and when Mary’s discoveries of several complete dinosaur fossils (including a pterodactyl) bring the scientific community to her door, Elizabeth acts as spokeswoman for her less confident friend. Chevalier handles the science with a deft hand, but her real subject is two women barred from the professional community of men who are also denied access to the more acceptable roles of wife and mother. (Mary’s “unwholesome” pursuits and working-class background put her beyond the pale of proper society.). Yet somehow Mary and Elizabeth thrive, and the novel glories in their substantial achievements against considerable odds.
Shines a light on women usually excluded from history—and on the simple pleasures of friendship.