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28 people found this helpful
on April 4, 2010
In addition to being the apt title of this fictional biography of Mary Anning, the finder of fossil curosities, "curiosity" is the driving force behind the prize-winning Manitoba writer, Joan Thomas in her excavation of this self-taught and unsung 19th century British paleontologist. A compelling subject, Anning was marked by a lightning bolt as a baby and, according to local lore, as a consequence was fey, fearless and spoke her mind ever after. With her "anthracite" eyes, she was her father's favoured helper in combing the Dorset seaside for "curies" and the additional income they afforded the poverty-pared family. Presaging Darwin's theory that species evolve, at the age of twelve she unearthed the scientific proof with her first fossil find. With patient dusting, washing and chiselling, it took her months to release the 6,000 year old dolphin-like creature from the limestone and shale cliffs surrounding her home.
Although the setting of the seaside resort of Lyme Regis has had previous literary exposure in "Persuasion" by Jane Austen and in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," Thomas snares and inhabits it as her own. "Piles of bracken lay washed up at the foot of the cliff: frilled sashes the rosy mauve of elderberry, and flags of glistening black, and brilliant, torn sea lettuce, all tangled like an extravagant bed of ribbons." Her fine eye, descriptive ability, meticulous research and use of evocative language from the period create a naturalist realism which grounds Anning in place and time. Like her fossils, she too was compacted in place: by relentless poverty, family responsiblities, by her local clergy who viewed her obsession with dead fossils as Satan's work, by male academics and collectors who claimed her finds as their own and by class-driven societal barriers.
And yet, she said "yes" to life and in Curiosity: A Love Story, finds a soulmate in the young Henry de la Beche, the absent Jamaican plantation owner with artistic skill at rendering her finds. They are bonded by their respect for science and love of the local glades which shield them temporarily from the realities of class. Mary was revered for her care in unearthing her finds - not breaking them, removing any dust that would shroud them, washing away extraneous bits, rendering them as true to their species as possible. It is the kind of care that Thomas has given her subject. Like the cliffs gave up its creatures to Anning, Thomas has given up Anning to us. You won't forget her.