by Jean M. Auel
When as a teenager I first read this novel set in a Paleolithic ice age, I found it fascinating and enthralling. I couldn't put it down. I felt like I had plunged into another world, that I could see the prehistoric jungle about me, the vast flora and fauna, the great beasts and brutality. The premise hinges on the possibility that two early races briefly co-existed: Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man. Auel portrays Neaderthals as being short, swarthy, dull and sexist brutes, whereas the Cro-Magnon are tall, blonde, blue-eyed, intelligent and open-minded. The story is centered on the conflicts caused by their differences.
Basically, it goes like this: a young Cro-Magnon child named Ayla is orphaned during an earthquake. The same earthquake has displaced a tribe of Neanderthals, and they find her lying injured on the path in their search for a new home. Against the inclination of many clan members, who distrust anything different and "other" she is picked up by the medicine woman, who adopts her into the "Clan". As Ayla grows and matures, her differences become unmistakable. She is adroit at learning and besides absorbing all the expected survival skills, becomes an accomplished healer and medicine woman. She also learns to make weapons and hunt in defiance of Clan rules, which forbid such activities to women. She challenges the authority of all the powerful men in the clan, friends and foes alike, simply by being a woman who is smarter than they are. Eventually her defiance of the Clan's way of life reaches a crisis, and they must decide whether to allow her to remain with them (and take advantage of her skills) or throw her out and rid themselves of the threat she poses.
I loved reading Clan of the Cave Bear because of the rich descriptions. The wealth of detailed information on herbal lore, weapon making, cooking methods and other survival skills of primitive man blew me away. Apparently the author closely researched how prehistoric man may have lived and survived, even fashioning crude weapons herself and building an ice cave to live in. However, her depiction of the social structure and attributes of early man is based on modern social dynamics, feminist leanings and her own active imagination. It is probably not very realistic and has met with much criticism by anthropologists and historians.
Despite the controversy surrounding its authenticity, this book and its following saga of prehistoric novels collectively called the Earth's Children has met with much success. I attribute this to Auel's superb storytelling, not the nature of her facts. There are many strong themes present in The Clan of the Cave Bear. Survival, acceptance, and what it means to be true to yourself. More than anything else, it is a story about human nature, the dynamics of power, and the strength of courage and love in the face of betrayal.
Rating: 5/5 ........ Published 1980, 497 pgs
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