Review: Earth Children Series

Rating : 4 / 5

The Earth Children series by Jean M. Auel is historical fiction set in the period of the Great Ice Age around 35000 years ago. Originally intended to be a set of 6 books, then later expanded to include 7, the series was first published in 1980, enjoyed unprecedented success with the first novel and led to a dedicated fan following for Auel. So much so, that in the 1980's there were an unprecedented number of female babies named Ayla (Ey-LAH) in the US after Ms. Auels' protagonist.

As a writer Ms. Auel isnt remarkably innovative, where the writing gains momentum is in things that interest her - the botany, geography, arcaehology of the paleolithic period. As an amateur anthropologist, Ms. Auel takes liberties with her subject material, doing an incredible amount of research but advancing theories which are not 'established' in the literature.

So, Ms. Auel's world contains two species of humans - the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons referred throughout as the Clan (from the Clan of the Cave Bear) and the Others. In her fictional world, the Cro-magnons communicate with a fully fledged language, the Neanderthals, due to the physiogonomy of her jaws have a (as richly developed) sign language and guttural sounds. While the brains of the Others are more receptive to new ideas, the brains of the Clan depend on ancestral 'memories', locked in their brains over generations, only needing reminding to awaken a memory but not very capable of new learning.

The series is bound together by a Cro-Magnon character called Ayla. While making her character the original feminist, Auel tries too hard to gain reader sympathy, the tall, blonde, blue-eyed Ayla is reviled as ugly by the Clan, is discriminated against but has many progressive ideas and comes up with the theory of reproduction all by herself. Since Ayla can be a little trying to read about, over the series she evolves into Superwoman with her very own blonde, blue-eyed, a little-less-than-Superman-ish consort, it becomes obvious that character development isnt really Auel's forte. What is, is her ability to construct and describe for the readers paleolithic civilization, the culture, the dwellings, the flora and fauna, the weapon making techniques, hunting strategies, spiritual beliefs, all these and more are amply described over the course of the books. So, if you are looking for a series with incredible historical detail the first three are for you. Reading the rest should depend on how involved you get and how patient you are with all the pontification.

Auel tries to deal with a number of issues in her books, equality between the sexes, prejudice and discrimination, culture, religion, medical knowledge, alcoholism and drug use, superstition and sex. While some issues like the religion and medical knowledge are judiciously presented, her world view of some topics is through rosy-tinted feminist glasses. So, an incredible amount of writing is devoted to the sexual liberation of women and matriarchal societies, which while not necessarily a bad thing, deviates from the hunter-gatherer norm of the period. Auel's writing on sex is clinical at best, touch on a required number of points/positions and move on, but that doesnt stop her from adding it in spades to every book in the series. I just mention it so that those who are contemplating reading are forewarned!

A break-down of the books is as below:

Clan of the Cave Bear: Inarguably the best of the lot, the story starts with the Cro-Magnon baby Ayla, being adopted by the Clan after an earthquake kills all the members of her tribe. Describing Ayla's trying childhood, from her love for her adoptive parents - the medicine woman Iza and the spiritual leader or Mog-ur of the tribe, Creb - to her fighting the jealousy and hatred of a Clan member Broud, her education in medicine and her rebellion towards the restrictions imposed by the Clan members on themselves and the woman, this is a quick and very engaging read.

Valley of Horses: The end of book 1 sees Ayla banished from her tribe and looking for the Others. While she doesnt find them, she finds herself in a valley where she takes refuge against the coming winter and remains for 3 years. In her solitariness she tames a horse Whinney and a lion, Baby for company. A parallel storyline follows the Cro-Magnon men (tall, blonde, blue-eyed, of course) Jondalar and Thonolan of the Zelandoni as they leave their tribe for a sort of Europe tour, until they end up in Ayla's valley. Jondalar and Ayla fall in love at the end of this book.

The Mammoth Hunters: Ayla and Jondalar come across the Mamutoi or the Mammoth Hunters and decide to spend a winter with them. Here she finds the companionship she has longed for and even an admirer in the tall, dark, brown-eyed (about time, you say?) sculptor Ranec. Ayla's many talents, make her beloved among the Mamutoi and she is adopted by them into their tribe testing the strength of her love and attachment to Jondalar. At the end, Jondalar who is longing for his home sets out to return to the Zelandoni, taking Ayla with him.

Plains of Passage: This is where the reader's commitment to the series is tested. As pages after pages of descriptive writing on vegetation, topology or the mating habits of mammoths go by one can see that the story has taken a backseat to the research. Which isnt terribly interesting either. Ayla's and Jondalar's reverse European tour, sees them meeting many tribes, some welcoming and innovative, some dysfunctional, others distrustful, combating prejudice or ignorance along the way, always with Super-Ayla making new discoveries. Jondalar is even given one discovery to make all by himself but it's Ayla's show all the way .... The end of this book takes Ayla and Jondalar on a death-defying trek over a glacier and puts them within reach of the Zelandoni camp.

Shelters of Stone: Released in 2002, this book took 12 years to write and has a significant amount of Auel's research into the French region where the large Zelandoni tribe lives. Apparently, the length of time between books also altered Ms. Auel's memories of her plot. Much had been made in the previous books about how the Zelandoni would not accept Ayla, pejudiced since she was raised by the Clan, but that premise fizzles out here. Also, after the Clan and the Mamutoi where Auel established certain character types living in a tightly-knit community, she takes the easy way out and rehashes them all here, just on a larger scale. Jondalar and Ayla finally get married and have a baby Jonayla, thus following the established romance novel precepts and the rest of the book sees them making efforts to settle down domestically.

While the scope of the rest of the series remain unclear, I think Auel will set the stage for the extinction of the Clan, as much has been hinted at in a recurring thread through the series. With no new book in sight, it seems unlikely that Auel will be able to accomplish completing her story. While I'd recommend the first 3 (and the rating is based on these), my interest has been tapering off in intervening years, so I might just take the time to see where Ayla and Jondalar end up. Then again, I might not.


avdi said...

Papaya - Sigh - I guess I could pick up the first in the series and see how it goes.

Thanks for detailing out the information so well. Now I have a very clear picture of what to expect.

Mama - Mia said...

wow!! that was an awesome review!! a quick fix guide, really! :)

but somehow i dont think it my cuppa tea! and with every growing list of NOT read books id rather keep "maybes" away for the time being!



couchpapaya said...

avdi - i did wait impatiently for 6 years for the last book (2002) to release so that shld tell u something. my enthusiasm has since reduced, but yes try them about ....

abha - fully agree with the maybes :) ... how goes the pratchett ??

samir said...

Very interesting, will try and get
"Clan of the Cave Bear" ASAP.
Thanks for a wonderful illuminating book review (as always).

couchpapaya said...

samir - as always, let me know what u think :)

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