Friday, September 2, 2011

REVIEW: The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

Despite a few narrative flaws, this is an absolutely fascinating story of a young woman doesn’t get the social or scientific recognition she deserves. Coming in, I knew just enough about Mary Anning to want to know more. I knew she was the subject of Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures (which is next on my reading list), but I wanted to start with something more straightforwardly biographical, before moving into the novelised version of her life.

Since I don’t want them to be the focus of my review, let me quickly do away with those narrative flaws I mentioned. Emling’s biography is unflinching and unapologetic in its honestly . . . it’s a story full of words like maybe, perhaps, probably, and likely. As readers, I think we come into a biography understanding that the author cannot possibly know every detail of every moment of the subject’s life with. There’s an unspoken agreement between reader and author to that effect, a silent understanding that there will necessarily be liberties in detail and dialogue. Calling attention to those grey areas at every turn was just distracting.

The other flaw is that the book tends to ramble sometimes, diverting into tangents that, as interesting as they are on their own, interrupt the flow of Mary’s story. Granted, some of these diversions are lengthy, but most of them could have been better served as footnotes or supplementary material at the end. Some readers might not mind the diversions, but it was Mary I came to read about, and it was Mary upon whom I wanted to remain focused.

As soon as you begin to understand a little about Mary Anning, you’ll also understand why those diversions are so distracting. Mary is an icon, a heroine, and a legend. As a self-taught, independent, young woman she made discoveries that put her highly-educated, well-supported, male peers to shame. She had an instinctive understanding of the fossils and bones she was finding, and could immediately envision the prehistoric monstrosities those tiny pieces should form. On more than one occasion, stuffy old scientists and palaeontologists adamantly declared that she was wrong, accusing her of fraud, only to be proven wrong on every occasion.

The fact that Mary got into fossil hunting merely to support her family, following in the footsteps of her beloved (and equally amateur father) just adds to the legend. As a woman, she never received proper credit for any of her discoveries, and could not attend any of the meetings where they were celebrated and discussed. Despite that, the greatest scientific minds of her time understood what a treasure they had in Mary, and many of them sought her out to walk the shore, to experience her gift, and to discuss her finds.

Neither able not permitted to pursue higher education, Mary educated herself, reading whatever she could her hands on, and exploring the practical applications of that knowledge. Far more worried about paying rent on their small cottage, and with feeding her mother and her siblings, she sacrificed the fame and fortune that she could have easily earned as a man, not to mention the love she must have craved as a human being, simply to provide.

It’s amazing to think that, even as Charles Darwin was embarking upon The Beagle, yet to even conceive, much less write, his The Origin of Species, this young woman was discovering dinosaurs that even the most educated minds couldn’t fathom. Had I the gift of time travel, I would love nothing more than to spend a day upon the beach, scavenging for fossils with Mary as my guide. Never afraid to get dirty, and more respectful than afraid of the tides that (more than once) brought ruin to Lyme Regis, she must have been an awe-inspiring figure.

Mary’s story is, in a word, amazing. It’s not just the story of a self-taught palaeontologist, a pioneer in her field, but the story of a self-made woman, a revolutionary in her gender. She is a woman who deserves to be recognized on both fronts, and her story here pays equal attention to both aspects of her extraordinary character. Of course, this is also a story full of fascinating details about dinosaurs, fossils, and the scientific process of the 19th century, which just makes it that much more compelling.


  1. I don't comment much, but I do so appreciate your reviews. I don't know much about Anning, but this review has made me want to learn all about her.

  2. For a novel of Mary Anning's life, I suggest Curiosity by Joan Thomas instead of (or in addition to) Tracy Chevalier's book. I agree that Mary's story is amazing. If you'd like to read my review, it's at:

  3. Oooh, thanks for the tip, Lindy - I'll definitely add that to my TBR pile.