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Bookends: A love of science brings two disparate lives together February 11, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: A love of science brings two disparate lives together

By Dan Davidson

December 9, 2015

– 865 words –



By Joan Thomas

McClelland & Stewart

416 pages


Kobo edition – $13.99


Curiosity is that odd species of historical novel, the one that begins with the lives of actual people, and explores what connections there might have been between them.

The cover I’ve picked to show you here just has the words “a novel” as a subtitle, but other editions make Thomas’ intention clear by using the words “a love story”.

This fictional biography of two mismatched people is set in early 19th century Britain, at a time when social class conventions were set pretty hard and fast, and the roles allowed to be played by women were just as fixed.

The real Mary Anning was the daughter of a poor family who, without much in the way of a formal education, transcended many boundaries to become one of the pioneers in the study of fossils.

Her first teacher is her father, who digs up fossils and sells them to rich collectors for more money that he can ever earn making cabinets and coffins. After his death, teenage Mary turns to the sale of these curiosities as a way of supporting her ailing mother and the other children.

A gifted paleontologist, Mary unearths from the sea cliffs of Lyme Regis, a coastal village in West Dorset, many of the finds for which the men to whom she sells them take credit in the scientific world. Only later in life is she recognized as the treasure that she is.

The other central character in this story is Henry de la Beche, who we first meet when he is running away from military college. Henry is the son of a plantation owner from Jamaica. His income derives from the slave-operated farm there. He is rooted in the poor upper classes, and has all sorts of expectations of life, many of which he must rely on the resources of others to attain. Henry means well much of the time, but he is as trapped by his station in life as is Mary.

The “love story” sub-title has two meanings. The obvious one, the romance, is something that both of them feel not long after they meet, but one which is mostly denied them by birth and station. They spend a lot of time together, but only once does this lead to a physical relationship. Mostly they talk and share their fascination for the new science of paleontology. Henry uses his artistic talents to render on paper the bones and fossils that she finds, as well as mapping the geology of the sea cliffs for her.

Henry is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who seems to have set out to catch him at an early age and then regrets her choice. Their engagement, which begins in their teens, stretches on for what seems to be years and she is eventually unfaithful to him in ways that go far beyond the mostly platonic meetings he has with Mary.

There is much tragedy and hardship in both of their lives. Henry is held in disdain by most of the members of his family and his in-laws, tolerated rather than valued for the talents he has. He buries himself in the study of science to compensate for this.

Mary simply has a hard life, one of poverty from which she is occasionally rescued by well meaning upper class benefactors. In addition, in this age before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species loosened up some of the preconceived notions of how creatures have developed, the kinds of creatures Mary is unearthing are held by many people to be evil in some way. This work is her calling and her only financial security, and yet she feels guilty about it.

The popular explanation for how the fossils got where they are being found is that they were creatures not rescued during Noah’s flood, and that their remains have been turned to stone as some sort of divine punishment.

Both Mary and Henry struggle with conflicting theories of how such creatures came to be, and why they no longer exist in the world.

The lives of these two are not always entwined. Henry travels while Mary does not. The alternating chapters of their lives are told is quite different voices, reflective of their differing personal styles, educational backgrounds and experiences.

Mary’s narrative is more matter of fact than Henry’s, while his shows a somewhat bookish and romanticized outlook on life.

One of the problems with e-books is that they don’t sit around reminding you that you haven’t read them yet. I picked up a Kobo edition of this one when Joan Thomas was a Berton House writer-in-residence here in 2012. It’s been sitting out in the “cloud”, not yet loaded onto any of the three devices that I have the Kobo (acronym for “book”) software on.

Published two years earlier, in 2010, the book was her second novel. It was named a Quill and Quire Book of the Year and was nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize and the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.








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