Sunday, May 17, 2009

Retro Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel

My high-school library had the series and they were so fat and juicy they needed a whole shelf to themselves. I was fourteen, and Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series was my Puberty Blues, 35,000 years in the making.
The series begins with The Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla, an infant Homo sapiens, is orphaned and picked up by a travelling group of Neanderthals somewhere in prehistoric Europe. Being a different species Ayla has difficulty fitting in, and things don’t get easier as she gets older. She’s far taller than any man she knows—which can be unsettling when you're young. I know. She and the clan think she’s ugly, but of course to other Homo sapiens, whom she eventually meets, she’s a stunner.
Over time, the clan comes to accept Ayla’s funny looks and unusual brain. She’s given a cave lion totem spirit (a sort of animal guide/fairy godmother) because of her scarred leg--she was badly scratched by one of the enormous lions as a child. The clan believes that in order for a woman to fall pregnant her totem spirit must be overcome by a man’s. If she bleeds, her spirit won. If she doesn't, she's pregnant. (Periods explained! This was better than Dolly). Because Ayla has such a strong, masculine totem, no one believes she will ever have a child.
The clan has an unusual approach to sexual intercourse and women’s rights: the two just don’t go together. One young man, Broud, the leader’s son, inflicts socially-sanctioned rape on Ayla, and she becomes pregnant. (Whether it is possible for modern humans and Neanderthals to interbreed is contentious. They did coexist for a certain period of time and some palaeo-archaeologists argue that Neanderthals disappeared because they interbred with humans. Others argue that humans hunted them to extinction--but not in a cannibalistic way. In a genocidal sort of way. But then again, I'm sure there's some scientists who would argue for cannabalism, too. Climate change could also be responsible. In short, the debate is almost as controversial as the "hobbits" on the island of Flores. But don't get me started on THAT.)
In the following four books, Ayla has further interesting and successively racier adventures. In book two, The Valley of Horses, there are so many "throbbing members" popping up I could barely open the book on the bus wide enough to read it for fear of someone peering over my shoulder. People didn't read at my school, so there was no fear of them knowing from the cover just what was entertaining me. Forget Debbie Vickers and a tub of vaso in the back of a Holden panel van. This was truly the stuff of sexual awakening.
Despite the fact that Ayla is alone for about eighty-five per cent of the novel, thus there's not a lot of character-driven conflict, Valley of the Horses is undeniably my favourite. I loved reading about her hunting and gathering techniques and the local flora and fauna. Auel makes fending for oneself sound quite blissful. It's also in this book she falls in love, with Jondalar, a rather well-endowed young man. Hence the all the throbbing members.
My school librarians smiled indulgently as I borrowed, red-faced, books three and four, The Mammoth Hunters and The Plains of Passage, and told me how much they had enjoyed them--sweet old ladies they were, and didn't seem to mind that the books resembled porn in places. I would have no hesitation in handing these books over to other fourteen-year-olds if they were actually reading them, as I did, rather than just flicking to the dirty bits. It is a series best read when young, before disbelief and the realities of sex make them laughable.

1 comment:

  1. Great in depth post!! And I so agree on the romantic comedy comment. That's why I like Mortal instruments series so much-They didn't even kiss in the first book, (well, hardly) there was so much action going on! Fighting vamps, getting turned into a rat...etc.:-D