Adventures, book review, Books

Remarkable Creatures – Tracey Chevalier Book review

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You might imagine Lyme Regis in Dorset on a November day would be rather bleak, but we were blessed with beautiful sunny weather when we visited last November. Lyme was enchanting, there were hardly any other tourists – the beach was empty and it was easy to enjoy a warming latte from one of the cafes on the prom.

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We ambled along the front turning up the high street to discover the most extraordinary Sanctuary Book Shop! It was full of oddities and curios including old black and white photographs and a battered sewing machine. Room after room, crammed in on every surface, books old and new jostled among teddybears and antiques. Classical music drifted around the shop, while we explored – in awe of the odd collections and tableau. If you ever get to Lyme do pop in! it is a cross between museum and book shop they even do Bed and Breakfast!

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On such a glorious day, I could not resist purchasing Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures as a way of taking a little bit of Lyme back home with me. Not just a reminder of a perfect day, but the extraordinary bookshop!

Set in Lyme itself, Remarkable Creatures tells the story of Mary Anning – who unearthed many fossils back in the early 19th century and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot a middle aged spinster.

Had it not been for the fact that the book would be a reminder of a perfect day, I might not have picked this book – because it doesn’t sound all that inspiring, but I had enjoyed Tracey Chevalier’s the last runaway – and what a lovely book it turned out to be!

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I had no idea about the lack of opportunities for middle class ladies, but Chevalier presented the plight of the three Philpot sisters very well – it seemed that women had only a very short time to find a husband and when they did not – they became the fringe of society. I love the way Chevalier weaves a rich story around real life characters. Mary Anning lived in Lyme- born into poverty, but able to survive by unearthing and selling her fossils – to men who took all the credit and the praise.

This is light hearted tale raises a deeper question in my mind, women’s contributions  to science and natural history, seems to be written out of history I wonder how many unsung women there are? What other female contributions are claimed by their male counterparts?  Many of Mary’s discoveries were simply attributed to the men who purchased them, rather than Mary herself. Chevalier also touches lightly on the challenges these creatures created in opposition to religious beliefs at the time. Darwin’s origin of the species is not mentioned, but Elizabeth ponders on how these discoveries fit with ‘God’s plan’.

While the Annings might be poor and the Philpotts rich in comparison, the balance of friendship is one of equality. Elizabeth’s life might not be restricted by poverty, but it is just as confined by circumstances as Mary’s is. Life for all women is not one of equality with men in all levels of society.

It is a light read – the tale is merely 350 pages, but one that I enjoyed and would recommend wholeheartedly, I liked the Philpott’s and would have liked to have spent more time with them in their cosy cottage in Lyme.

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Adventures

The Last Runaway – Tracey Chevalier


the last runaway

Oh my! What a read – I am almost jealous of those who have yet to pull back the cover of this brilliant book and journey to America with Honor Bright! (ok so the name is a bit odd, I grant you)

I loved this book – which meant I read it in a day and now I am bereft! My dear friend N, gave this to me with the words “it made me want to take up quilting’ and I know what she means!

Honor quilts, her stitching is so good that other characters comment on it. I am not sure if it was the simplicity of the life depicted, where order reigned and women gathered together to sew that I was attracted to, or just the joy of reading about sewing, but I found it delightful.

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Chevalier really brought Honor to me in waves of sympathy –  being so seasick that she would never travel by sea back to England,  chapter one flew by in a blink of an eye and I was completely hooked.

We follow Honor, a Quaker, on her journey to a vast America only just independent from England, where slavery is still a matter of government debate that will eventually lead to war.

Honor brings to life the differences in culture, language and landscape – as she tries to adjust to her new life. She was supposed to be accompanying her sister, Grace to her husband in Ohio – but sadly Grace dies not far into their journey – leaving Honor travelling vast distances alone. She makes good friends along the way, a larger than life milliner who makes good use of Honor’s sewing skills and forges a deep friendship that overcomes the natural barriers of Quakers and ‘others’.

I felt sorry for poor Honor that she received such a lukewarm reception, not just form her potential brother in law, but the Quaker Community. I know Quakers are supposed to be quiet people but I don’t believe they are as sombre as depicted in this book – but it is a subtle influence to the plot and essential to the story. My best friend at school was a Quaker, as a family they were a happy bunch, quiet, unassuming and most of all warm.

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This story is not really about sewing – it is about the ‘underground railroad’ where runaway slaves followed a network of sympathisers as they headed from the South to Canada.  I know very little about American History but there are some interesting articles at the back of the book – if you want to dip your toe in.

It is about finding your place among strangers, finding courage to speak. It is about following your beliefs and how ideals are watered down by the nuts and bolts of living; something that has been a recurring theme in my life recently.

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I loved the way relationships were echoed by the weather, the stifling heat reflected and intensified just how stifled Honor was feeling. How silence can be strangely liberating and smiling can mask underlying jealousy.

I think what works so well is that Honor is not able to express her views to those around her instead she writes letters; the tale of passive aggressive behaviour by women is so cleverly illustrated – Honor is a talented seamstress and a good home maker, but that doesn’t make her liked. But Chevalier gives Honor her voice in the letters she writes at the end of each chapter – she vents to her friends back in England and longs to  belong.

It has given me a new respect for Americans – the weather can be hostile and so can some of the animals, but its the attitude of picking yourself up and moving forward that comes across most. The optimism and courage to start from scratch and begin something new.

I know that it all sounds rather moral and boring, but it really is not, you will love it I promise!

This book is reviewed on Richard and Judy’s book club – here are the questions.

Question 1: Honor is in a very difficult position when she first arrives in America. Do you feel that she makes the right decisions?

Yes – she goes to the only person in the country she knows – the one person who is expecting her. I think she was incredibly brave to trust strangers and she was lucky with those she picked – perhaps she was a good judge of character.

Question 2: What role does faith play in the novel – both religious faith and faith in other people?

I think faith was the link between them all, they seemed to be searching to belong – but as the book illustrates it was also about cutting ties and upping sticks and moving on. It made people restless and disconnected.

I think their strong beliefs were being tested, none more so than the Haymakers – the father died for his faith and rather than feel strengthened by his sacrifice – the Haymakers retreated – which belief should you follow? The law of the land or faith in equality? I am not sure I could have chosen, I know I could not have ignored someone in need but then I hadn’t suffered for my beliefs either.

Question 3: Who do you think the ‘last runaway’ of the title refers to?

I think it is Honor herself – her silence did not work so she had to escape.

Question 4: Discuss the importance of quilting to the story.

Quilting was Honors comfort, even though it was different like everything else, it was familiar enough for Honor to feel connected. I felt that it also symbolised her adjustment into American culture, her enthusiasm for appliqué grew as she became more settled – it showed that she was ready to move forward.