Ordinary is what most people are and I am not. I am not ordinary at all. I am a scientist.
One stormy night, a group of villagers are struck by lightning. The only survivor is a baby – Mary Anning. From that moment on, a spark is lit within her.
Growing up poor but proud on the windswept Dorset coast, Mary follows after her father, hunting for fossils uncovered by waves and landslips: ancient creatures, turned to stone. Ignoring other people’s taunts, Mary faces danger to bring back valuable treasures to help feed her family. But tragedy and despair is never far away. Mary must depend upon her unique courage and knowledge to fulfil her dream of becoming a scientist in a time when girls have no opportunities for such ambitions. What will happen when she makes her greatest discovery of all…?
Tisn’t everybody gets struck by lightning and lives to tell the tale. But I did. Not that I recall. I was only a baby. My father wasn’t there when it happened but he would have told you the story if you’d asked him and would have recounted how he found me wrapped in a cloth, quite gone from my mind. Like dead. But not.
How to define a woman as a scientist? This is the dilemma that underpins the frustrations of determined and prickly souvenir-maker and palaeontologist Mary Anning, whose young life in the hardships of C18th Dorset challenge her and the sympathies of those around her. Mary is not easily likeable – brusque, dismissive – but the author portrays her and her situation in such a way that we are drawn to stand alongside her, and see how people came to admire and love her. This is a neat trick by Simmons and allows the narrative to conclude on a downbeat that reflects Anning’s own frustrations and suggests how identities are formed but not always neatly resolved: no mean feat.
My favourite character was-as odd as it may seem- Mary’s mother, clearly a woman who knows how to carve her own path through life. I found the scenes with her featuring main stage really interesting, especially because mothers usually take a back seat in middle grade fiction, and Simmons doesn’t let that become the case here.
‘These rich folk, Mary, they’ll beat you down at every turn! You got to stand your ground. Look them in the eye and don’t take any of their nonsense. It’s the only way and don’t you forget it! But hark at me! I’m telling the toughest little saleswoman in all of Dorset!’
With a factual section about Mary Anning, her life, and the discoveries she made.