"The Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel (1980)
"But it was more than the tremendous size of the animal that held the clan spellbound. This was Ursus, the personification of the Clan itself. He was their kin, and more, he embodied their very essence. His bones alone were so sacred they could ward off any evil. The kinship they felt was a spiritual tie, far more meaningful than any physical one. It was through his Spirit that all the clans were united into one and meaning was given to the Gathering they had traveled so far to attend. It was his essence that made them Clan, the Clan of the Cave Bear."
Author Jean M. Auel lives in Portland, Oregon. She is best known for her Earth's Children series, of which The Clan of the Cave Bear forms the first of six parts. The Clan of the Cave Bear was also adapted into a terrible film in 1986.
30,000 years or so ago a young girl, Ayla, loses her family in a cataclysmic earthquake. Ayla, a Cro Magnon and thus one of our direct ancestors, is then adopted by a group of Neanderthals that raises her as one of their own. As Ayla learns the ways of her adopted group, a rivalry develops between her and the chief's son, Broud, a bully who sees her as both an interloper and as a threat to his own status.
In anthropological terms this book does a good job with what was known at the time. Of course given our current understanding of when certain human traits developed - or the relative sizes of certain animals - it falls short, but it's never too far off the mark. Given the anthropological record in the late 1970s it's a very authentic account.
Perhaps more relevant to the story are the gender roles and species (racial) distinctions inherent in it. After all The Clan of the Cave Bear isn't just a story about cavemen, but rather the roles of women and men in prehistoric society. Gender is a constant theme in this book, especially given Ayla's perceived "maleness" and Broud's perceived "femaleness." Ayla largely succeeds because she has transcended the gender definitions laid out for her by the Clan, and Broud fails because he hasn't achieved the ideal of what a man should be. This type of gender definition, identification, and transcendence is central to the book, and its absence is one of the many reasons why the movie was such a disaster.
Ayla's speciation (or "race") is also an important feature of the story, and one of the aspects of the novel that I most identified with. As a Cro Magnon living among Neanderthals, she is often viewed as "ugly," "different," or even "unacceptable." This again was something absent from the movie, and something which it sorely needed.
If I were to criticize The Clan of the Cave Bear I would do so on only one count, this being a slight "sanitization" of the time period under discussion. There's something to the argument that Ayla's world feels a little bit too much like our world, and the savagery inherent in her mode of existence is in many instances absent from her story. Just look at a book like The Orenda, for example. If those times were so desperate and violent, how much worse would Ayla's have been?
This small critique aside, I'd have to say that The Clan of the Cave Bear is an easy read and an entertaining story. The ending is a bit of a foregone conclusion, but reaching that conclusion is all part of the fun. It's certainly not Literature with a capital "L," but it might just make you think about your own human nature, and how this nature fits into (or doesn't fit into) the larger scheme of things.
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