Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
In her latest publication, Tea Cooper has managed to create an interesting story from two different times in history. Her stories always have a basis in fact and tell of secrets and memories and mysteries as well as values and attitudes of the times.
I read somewhere that in November 2021 this author was juggling two releases – The Cartographer’s Secret in the US and The Fossil Hunter in Australia and that she has two more projects underway to be released in 2022 and 2023. Most of her books are set predominantly in Australia and around Sydney and the Hunter Valley. When asked if she could go back in time for a year, which historical era she would choose she replied – The 1850s in my hometown, Wollombi. This is the setting for her latest book, The Fossil Hunter.
The story begins here in 1847 with a young girl who has chickenpox. She has been taken in by the family of the local doctor as her only relative, her father, has been taken away accused of murder. It is here where the reader first encounters society’s prejudices at that time in history, highlighting the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”.
The opportunity to visit, with the other children, a place with the interesting name of Bow Wow Gorge, allows young Mellie to dream of another life but what happens at that time will have consequences that affect others right through to 1919.
The second historical storyline involves a young woman about to return home to Wollombi after driving an ambulance in Europe during the war. A chance meeting with a volunteer in the Natural History Museum in London brings back memories of her two brothers who would not be going home and their passion for collecting fossils.
Penelope Jane Martindale (PJ) returns home to the doctor’s house in Wollombi with the American ambulance driver who wants to ask her father for PJ’s hand in marriage. Her homecoming is not as welcoming as she would have hoped, and she becomes obsessed with her brothers’ fossil collection as she needs to know why they enlisted against their father’s wishes. She believes that her father blames her for their actions and consequent death.
As the title suggests, this is a book about hunting for fossils, both in Lyme Regis, England and the Hunter Valley, New south Wales. It is a story based on early female fossil hunters and the collections of Anthea Winstanley and her friends Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. It highlights the difficulty for recognition women experienced in any endeavour outside the home. This attitude apparently still carried through, in Australia, into the early 20th century as PJ experienced when she and Sam went to the local police station. ‘Sergeant Wallis, please.’ PJ approached the counter. ‘Good afternoon, sir.’ The constable looked straight through her to Sam. It was as though she hadn’t spoken. ‘We have an appointment.’ PJ inserted herself between the counter and Sam… ‘would you have any idea what this is about, sir?’ (274)
There are many secrets to be uncovered in this story. I was intrigued by the way the author caused me to question my assumptions as to which of the characters were to be trusted. The beliefs about sea dragons and bunyips also added an extra dimension to the story as did the wonder of a non-Australian to some of the more unusual Australian fauna.
The main mystery to be uncovered was about what happened to Mellie and were there any valid dinosaur fossils to be found in this area? I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable story to read and learned much about fossils in the process. I wonder just how far we have really progressed in gender attitudes over the years.
The Fossil Hunter
by Tea Cooper