by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
I've read a few of this author's non-fiction books, but I had no idea she wrote fiction until I picked up Reindeer Moon, a story set twenty thousand years ago in a cold northern region of forest and steppes. Like Clan of the Cave Bear, it's full of harsh realities and bitter struggles for survival, especially when it comes to people's interactions. In Thomas' novel, the people are so few that one individual's error or misdeed can jeapordize the entire group. The main character is a young woman named Yanan, who after a streak of catastrophic events finds herself alone with her younger sister, traveling through the wilderness to try and find her people again. They take shelter in an old abandoned lodge, only to find a mother wolf has made it her den. For a time they co-exist with the wolf and its cub. In this incident and the following events, I could see a scenario arising of how the first wolf was tamed. Only it didn't happen in the span of the book- which rather disappointed me, but also made it more realistic; I think the development of a partnership with animals would probably have taken more than one person's lifetime. I also really liked (of course) parts of the story where when a person died, their spirit could take on the form of an animal- and at times the spirit would just live the animal's life, forgetting what it had originally set out to do in that form. It was really interesting to see the different animal perspectives: deer, lion, bear, owl etc. The first time it happened I was surprised: wait, she's a wolf now? but then I eagerly awaited the person-into-animal moments.
Anyway, I'm getting off track. The wolf thing was not the focus of the story, although I found it fascinating. It's mostly about Yanan's efforts to live her life the way she wants to- sometimes against the tenants of her society. Not nearly as dramatic (or rich in detail) as Clan of the Cave Bear (which I couldn't help comparing it to, as one of the few other novels I've read set in prehistory) but full of grim realities- death in childbirth is common, many children never survive to adulthood, winter brings starvation, people fight over food and mates, illness and injury go ignored. It was sometimes hard to read descriptions of them suffering in ways which the reader knew were totally preventable but the characters were ignorant of. Often the people acted totally callous towards each other. And yet they were also skillful, manipulative and imaginative- very human. This is one of the few books I've ever read where in the society arranged marriages made complete sense- the population was so small, and life so risky, the people had to carefully choose who joined with whom. Resistance to these arrangements could cause lots of turmoil .... Reindeer Moon is a story of a woman growing up, learning some hard lessons in a very harsh land, a book about nature and nurture, about discovery and loss...
This book reminded me of so many others. The part where the girl and her sister are struggling to survive alone brought to mind Into the Forest. The way they came to live in the wolf's den made me think of Incident at Hawk's Hill. The closeness to nature, paired with brutality and a sense of wonder, echoed themes of An Imaginary Life. Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book and I'm eager to get my hands on the companion novel, The Animal Wife. (I'm hoping it continues to speculate, even as backdrop to the main events, how someone tamed a wolf...)
I read this book for the TBR Challenge
Rating: 4/5 ........ 336 pages, 1987