Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Clan of the Cave Bear Series - An Overview

The Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth's Children, Book One)
I have been following Jean Auel's Earth's Children series for many years now (I can't remember when I began reading them).  With the last book of the series now available, I am going to give you an overview and then a review of the entire series.

First came The Clan of the Cave Bear, a book that begins with a young girl, perhaps 5 years old, losing her family in an earthquake.  They had been traveling on the peninsula near the Beran Sea, and now the girl, not knowing how to find food, wanders, hungry and thirsty, looking for people to take care of her.

From this traumatic beginning, this young girl does indeed find a place, but it's with people that don't look at all like her, think like her, or speak like she does. They are Neanderthals, while she is a Cro-Magnon child.

In this first book, Auel explores the rich culture she has posited for Neanderthal man, as well as the landscape, embroidered with details about their lives that put me right there. I learned more about finding food, about identifying edible plants, how to start a fire, skin an animal, and so many more activities that were part of daily life for ancient people that I developed a deeper appreciation for what a posh life we live today.

At the end of this book, Ayla, the orphaned girl, is now 13, and she is once again looking for a place to belong.

The Valley of Horses (Earth's Children, Book Two)
In The Valley of Horses, the second book in the Earth's Children series, our heroine Ayla searches for people more like herself. She has no idea what to do once she finds them, but she must at least try.

With winter fast approaching, and no reserves of food or a place to call her own, Ayla finds a small valley with a cave she can use, and she begins to lay in supplies for the cold season ahead.

We are introduced to two Cro-Magnon men, Jondalar and Thonolan, brothers who are on a long journey, travelling from west to east and meeting many different peoples along the way. Their story slowly winds around scenes of Ayla in her valley, and finally they intersect, in a traumatic and miraculous meeting, and a collision of vastly different cultures.

At the end of the second book, Ayla and Jondalar decide to travel together, looking for others like themselves, so that Ayla can broaden her horizons.

The Mammoth Hunters (Earth's Children, Book Three)
In The Mammoth Hunters, Ayla and Jondalar decide to visit a group of people who live only days away from her isolated little valley. They make friends, with Ayla finally having her first girlfriends, and she learns that there is also much to learn about social interactions between multiple people, esoteric knowledge that expands upon the expertise she learned from the Clan of the Cave Bear, and also about dealing with multiple admirers.

Because Ayla has never learned how to lie, she finds some of the falsehoods between people hard to understand. Her background sets her apart, for both good and bad, and Jondalar must learn to deal with this as time goes on.

At the end of the third book, Jondalar is ready to return to his own people, and Ayla joins him on his long journey home.

The Plains of Passage
In The Plains of Passage, Ayla and Jondalar travel for most of a year to reach his homeland. There are many challenges, dangers, and quandaries they must figure out, and their relationship suffers at times due to the stress of the journey.

They rest along the way, meeting new people, exploring new cultures, helping solve problems, leaving stories that legends are made of in their wake.

But at last, they reach Jondalar's homeland, right at the end of the book.

The Shelters of Stone (Earth's Children, Book Five)
The Shelters of Stone is a much different chapter in Ayla's story.  Although there are similarities, like learning to fit in, learning about the new cultural mores and customs of these people, and getting used to everything new, Ayla is now looking at the end of her journey, and she is feeling the pressure to find a way to fit in. If she can't, she might lose Jondalar and have to go on another journey, back to one of the peoples that did accept her.

By the end of the book, Ayla is accepted by most, though there are still some people who resent her presence. She has made a place and a name for herself, and she has come to an acceptance of the people around her, as well.

The Land of Painted Caves: A Novel (Earth's Children)
The Land of Painted Caves picks up not long after The Shelters of Stone left off, and like the first book, this one covers years in Ayla's life, rather than seasons or one single year. She is settling in, becoming a familiar and essential part of Jondalar's people, and she is learning the skills she needs to become a powerful spiritual leader among them. Her past experiences serve her well, giving her a broad foundation upon which to base her efforts to assist others. At the end of this book, Ayla is an accepted part of Jondalar's society, and she has found happiness and fulfillment in her work.

This very light overview of the series skips over 99% of the most compelling parts of the story, and it in no way does justice to the wealth of research and writing that Auel did to prepare for each novel. As such, it is just a light teaser to get you interested, or to let you know the general structure or overall story arc from beginning to end.

The rich feast that is Ms. Auel's storyline is not for every reader, I'm sure, but for anyone who is fascinated by cultural differences, by anthropology, by survival skills, self-sufficiency, natural first aid, or deeply researched landscapes within story are bound to be caught up in the narrative.

I recommend this series to any avid reader.

I am going to give a very general review of the novels.  Individually, I would rate them thus:

The Clan of the Cave Bear: ***** Five Stars
The Valley of Horses: ***** Five Stars
The Mammoth Hunters: ****  Four Stars
The Plains of Passage: ****  Four Stars
The Shelters of Stone: ***** Five Stars
The Land of Painted Caves: ****   Four Stars

The books that received four stars had conflicts within the plot that lasted a bit too long, and should have been (in my humble opinion) resolved more promptly. Their length weakened the rest of the storyline, but not to the point of ruin.

The series as a whole is beautifully written, in clear, straightforward language, and the imagery is striking. I learned a lot, I can easily imagine all of the cultures Auel presents as having existed, and I would love to visit with the main characters, in every one of the cultures.

Auel's deft touch with the animal characters is particularly wonderful, and they are some of the most memorable of the entire series. I reread this series every couple of years, and it is part of my inner landscape.

I have heard people say that Auel's heroine is a superwoman, but to me, she never comes off that way. She is simply someone who has learned how to learn; how to use her creativity to solve problems. And with the unique background that Auel has given her, I believe that all of her "super" powers make perfect sense.

In short, don't let the size of the books intimidate you. Grab the first and dive in!

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