Set in the harsh, deadly coastal winters of 19th Century Lyme Regis, in England, Anthea Simmons’ gritty, compelling book about the real-life palaeontologist Mary Anning is as inspirational as it is educational.
I was lucky enough to grow up along the Jurassic coastline where this book is set, and one of the things I enjoyed most about the writing and Mary’s adventures around the sea-blighted landscape, was how well Simmons’ portrays the rough, torrid and difficult place this countryside is.
The story centres around Mary’s younger years, where she finds her passion for “fossicking”, or digging up dinosaurs as she will much later realise. She meets an inspirational, rich boy who does help hone her dreams about being scientist…but the forceful and forthright character of Mary herself does not need any persuasion or help from anyone.
It is a true story that Mary Anning was struck by lightning when she was a baby. The person holding her and two others died, but Mary survived. And, because of this “miracle”, the portrayal of Mary as an extraordinarily forceful and gifted woman seems to organically fit the flow of the story. There are real undertones of shining feminism in Mary’s struggles to be recognised as a scientist in her own right, amongst the “boys’ club” of a male-dominated world.
And, through great personal tragedies, and overwhelming poverty, Mary carries on with her discovery of a full-sized dinosaur skeleton. She manages to recruit her town to support her, and she becomes famous for being a revolutionary fossil hunter.
It’s a beautiful, heartfelt story that does inspire young people to consider science as a career (as a STEM-ette novel, this is partly its purpose), and underlines what an important part in the history of southwest England Mary Anning played.