Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Review: Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel

I picked up Clan of the Cave Bear while standing in line at the checkout counter in K-Mart many years ago and was enchanted. I thought it was a stand-alone book and was quite happy with that, but when The Valley of Horses was featured as a book club selection, I had to get it too, and was equally enchanted. I could see myself living alone in a cave and hunting (hopefully with less fuss than Ayla had) and eventually living with a horse and a lion. The story was fascinating and the way it ended was satisfying. Next came The Mammoth Hunters and I still remember the way they burned bone in the hearths and how urine was collected and saved to be used to bleach animal hides to white. I read all the books many years ago but they were memorable and fascinating.

Jean Auel has a way of imparting so much information about the landscape and the flora and fauna that I didn't feel the books were bogged down by the elaborate descriptions. The descriptive passages helped me to see the world in which Ayla lived and hunted and how where she lived in part guided her actions. I was mesmerized -- and informed.

I recently discovered there were three more books in the series but wanted to go back and read the other three books to see if they were as good as I remembered. They were, although I feel that The Mammoth Hunters was weaker than the first two books. The Plains of Passage came next and Ayla and Jondalar traveled across the land between the Black Sea and France meeting more people and getting into some trouble, nothing that Ayla couldn't find a way to manage.

That's what I liked so much about the series. Earth's Children was a woman's journey, a woman of strength and ingenuity and power, and Jondalar neither over shadowed her or was afraid of what Ayla was and how much she could accomplish. He celebrated her independence and skills and loved her for it, even learning from her. Ayla was the star and Jondalar was quite comfortable being second string. It was her Journey after all.

The Plains of Passage took Jondalar back along the route he took with his brother Thonolan and was bittersweet for that reason alone. The movement was ever forward and often dangerous, but Ayla and Jondalar were equal to every danger.

The Shelters of Stone was a bit slow but gave the effect of Ayla finally settling down. She didn't have an easy time of it and gained some more enemies along the way, especially when she, being who she was, shone brighter than her enemies. She wasn't showy or looking for praise or applause, just being who she was meant to be, sharing her gifts with everyone and anyone --even her enemies. Ayla was still the star and Jondalar still content to be second string in spite of Shelters of Stone being set in his home cave.

In the final book, The Land of Painted Caves, Ayla comes into her own, but not without having to pay a price for everything she had gained. Jean Auel took Ayla on another journey to see the painted caves in France and along the western coast of Europe. The descriptions, as detailed as they were, didn't quite give as clear a sense of place and environment as in previous books and I think Auel was running out of literary gas at this point. The books span more than a decade of publishing time and several years of Ayla's life and journey, often skipping over a few years. The Land of Painted Caves is the weakest of the six books and repeats the same situation between Ayla and Jondalar that made up such a huge part of The Mammoth Hunters, and therein lies one of the major problems with the series: repetition.

Throughout all but the first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, Auel repeats much of Ayla's history, rape by Broud, and her experience at the Clan gathering when Creb, The Mog-ur, guided her through the memories of their origins in the sea and brought Ayla back from the formless black void, changing Ayla at some basic level and letting Creb see that the Clan were on a course to extinction. Ayla's son Durc would be the only future remaining for the Clan, the people the Neanderthals called Flatheads, who saw births of such mixed heritage abomination. While some repetition of the major points laid down in the first book is necessary, Auel repeats the same information several times in each book. That much back story is repetitious and bogs down the story.

Another repetitious point is the way Ayla speaks. At first, the difference in how she pronounces words was a minor variation, one that added to her uniqueness. Auel repeats this information so many times it becomes irritating, especially when Ayla's unusual way of pronouncing words becomes very noticeable and not, as when first mentioned, a slight difference. The difference is exaggerated more and more and is repeated so often that it is like a bit of seed stuck between the teeth that cannot be easily removed, and sometimes as irritating as fingernails on a blackboard. Ayla speaks differently because she lived the bulk of her early life with the Clan and spoken words were few and only for emphasis; we got it.

The Mother's song, which is the oral history handed down by the Neanderthals as their creation myth, is also repeated many more times than necessary. There are times when the whole "poem" is repeated and other times when large sections are repeated. It was unnecessary when referring to the poem to go through the whole thing again. The creation myth is important in the final book of the series, The Land of Painted Caves, but only when it is central to the story and not necessary every time it is mentioned. I got it. The Mother's song is important, but I don't need to read it every time it is mentioned. I skipped over those parts rather than read it again and again -- ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I began to wonder if Auel was using the repetitious sections of Ayla's time with the Clan, her unusual accent, and the Mother's song as a way to pad the books and make them longer. Take out those sections and nothing is lost from the narrative, which is a sign that an editor should have blue penciled much more of the books.

One thing I have learned as a writer is that when two characters' problems can be solved by talking to each other, it's not really a problem. No matter what justification Auel used for Ayla and Jondalar's emotional separation, the problem could have simply been solved by talking to each other. Of course, that would have meant a much quicker resolution of the central issue and a shorter book, but pages could have been added with new material and the bumps and potholes that normally crop up in any relationship between man and woman. Ayla and Jondalar are fully realized characters, but they are a bit tedious and somewhat ignorant for all the innovations that evolved from their willingness to try different methods, like using a horse to transport goods and food and learning to hunt and live with a wolf.

Despite the failings in Auel's writing and plotting, what she does well is evoke the time and the landscape of neolithic Europe during the glacial period. Descriptions of mammoths mating, the dynamics of herds and living in a cave dependent on each other for all needs, and the way Auel describes the relationships between families and their religious caste, the Zelandonia, is part of the charm and uniqueness that is central to the Earth's Children series.

Though much of what is contained in the series is conjecture as to when horses and wolves were domesticated and became part of the fabric of human existence and when and how the various weapons were used and improved, these facts ring true and demonstrate the difference between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. After all, history and archaeology are built on such conjecture and fitting disparate pieces of the fossil and pictorial records together to provide a somewhat homogenous picture of what life would have been like for humans and how they adapted.

I give Jean M. Auel kudos for her imagination and for the way she took the experience of seeing a man who was deformed, whose arm had been amputated, and creating a believable world full of mystery and majesty where a young girl could be orphaned and injured and become one of the most admirable and amazing female icons in modern times. The series is a remarkable achievement for all its flaws and Ayla a strong and wonderful female protagonist that I will always remember.


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