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Jean Auel catapulted from obscurity to the bestseller lists with the publication of her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the story of an adventurous and resilient young Cro-Magnon heroine, Ayla. Feminist themes are prevalent throughout the book, as well as issues of racial and gender prejudice and xenophobia. The success of the book spawned several sequels, including The Valley of the Horses (1982) and The Mammoth Hunters (1985), which along with The Clan of the Cave Bear are known collectively as the ”Earth’s Children” series.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Research on Prehistory
Jean Auel was born in 1936 in Chicago, Illinois, to Neil S. Untinene, a painter and decorator, and Martha (Wirtanen) Untinene. As a child she was an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction and developed an interest in prehistory. She attended Portland State University and throughout her undergraduate education worked as a credit manager and technical writer in order to support herself. She married her business manager, Ray B. Auel, in 1954, and the couple eventually had five children.
Though busy with work and the running of a house hold, Auel continued to pursue her love of prehistoric times, and she followed the works and discoveries of such biological anthropologists as Dr. Jean Clottes, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Tim White, Maurice Taieb, and Raymond Dart. Auel also conducted an intensive personal study of the Ice Age and researched hominid ancestors of modern human beings—australopithecines, Neanderthals, and Cro-Magnons. Her interest was particularly encouraged by the 1974 discovery of the “Lucy” skeleton in Ethiopia. This landmark discovery of a three-million-year-old-female australopithecine (Lucy was, at the time of her discovery, the oldest hominid specimen found) proved that humankind’s australopithecine ancestors were more human than apelike. By examining the skeleton of Lucy, scientists determined that australopithecines walked upright and had brain sizes closer to those of modern humans than previously believed. The discovery of Lucy sparked violent debate between creationists (who contended that man was created by God a few thousand years ago, in the form of Adam and Eve) and scientists who believed that man descended, through the process of natural selection, from the same primate ancestor as that of apes. Auel followed this debate closely and corresponded with many of the leading anthropologists involved with the study of prehistoric man.
Combining Feminism and Ancient History
Though continuing to work, raise children, and to study for an MBA (which she ultimately received from the University of Portland in 1976), Auel pursued her interest in the scientific discoveries and debates concerning ancient hominids. Influenced perhaps by the concurrent American Civil Rights Movement as well as the fact that the australopithecine skeleton found in Ethiopia was a female, Auel began to outline a historical novel that imagined a woman protagonist living in Paleolithic times. In her spare time, Auel began writing the story that would eventually be published in 1980 as The Clan of the Cave Bear. The story’s heroine, Ayla, is a Cro-Magnon woman adopted early in life by a tribe of Neanderthals after her own people had perished in an earthquake. An outcast because of her unusual appearance (Ayla resembled modern humans more than her adopted family did) the young protagonist ultimately uses her creativity and inventiveness to overcome the obstacles of her world. The innovative Ayla perfects the sling as a weapon, uses a sewing needle, makes fire with flint and iron pyrite, domesticates animals, and practices medicine.
This first volume of the ”Earth’s Children” series was an overwhelming hit among readers; it had a lengthy stay on the bestseller lists and won an American Book Award nomination for best first novel. What makes the success of the series even more notable, as critics have pointed out, is its genre. ”Caveman” fiction had heretofore not been considered a prime prospect for block buster books. But Auel’s novels appeared at a time when longstanding notions of prehistoric life were being reassessed. As Newsweek writer Sharon Begley related, the real-life ”Earth’s Children” of some 17,000-35,000 years ago were far from the brutish, unintelligent creatures of stereotype. On the contrary, their era, ripe with art and invention, was actually the ”cradle of human culture.”
Equally popular to The Clan of the Cave Bear was its 1982 sequel The Valley of Horses. The third book of the series, The Mammoth Hunters, shattered existing publishing records with a first printing of 1.1 million copies. The fourth book in the series, The Plains of Passage (1990), debuted as number one on the New York Times bestseller list and sold one hundred thou-sand copies the first two days it was on sale. Auel kept many fans anxiously waiting by letting twelve years pass before publishing the fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone(2002). She continues to write and has received honorary degrees from the University of Portland, the University of Maine, Mount Vernon College, and Pacific University.
Works in Literary Context
Feminist Views in a Prehistoric Setting
Auel’s novels were written during the period of ”third-wave feminism” in America. Unlike the second-wave feminists of the 1970s who advocated the credo ”the personal is the political” and focused on liberating women from oppression in domestic spaces, such third-wave feminists as Susan Sontag and Dorothy Allison focused on achieving equality for women in the legal and political sphere. Auel’s works reflect both these movements by describing the heroine Alya’s domestic life, but also by outlining the differences in attitudes toward women held by Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cultures. Linda S. Bergmann, writing for Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, believed that Auel’s novels ”can perhaps best be described as feminist prehistorical romances. Drawing on feminist theories of matriarchal prehistory and fertility-based religion . . . Auel uses the conventions of historical romance to create prehistoric feminist utopias.” Bergmann further noted that ”although this series is set in the Stone Age, it raises contemporary feminist concerns about gender roles, and is as much about our own time as about prehistory.”
Clash of Cultures
Throughout Auel’s works, the protagonist Ayla, a Cro-Magnon woman who is orphaned after a natural disaster kills every other member of her tribe, must adapt to a Neanderthal culture that is not as evolutionarily advanced as her own. Thus Ayla, who is ostracized from her adopted culture due to her dissimilar appearance and penchant for innovation, must learn to exist in a culture where women are oppressed and advanced technology is treated with skepticism. The strong-willed Ayla threatens the status quo by refusing to be blindly obedient to chauvinist customs and by introducing such practices as sewing clothing, domesticating animals, and curing illness with medicine. She and her lover Jondalar, whom Auel described as ”the early equivalent of today’s technical genius, the engineer, the computer nut,” revolutionize Cro-Magnon culture through advanced ideas and technologies that change daily life and the roles of women as well as social traditions and methods of warfare.
Works in Critical Context
Though sometimes citing technical imperfections of plot and dialogue, many reviewers agree with Auel’s thousands of fans that her ”Earth’s Children” books have merit as both adventures and as keys to understanding the lives of early humans. Ellen Emery Heltzel commented in Book that ”Auel’s love for the natural sciences, along with her attention to minutiae, is much of what captivates readers.” In general, critics were more pleased with Auel’s strong, believable characters, their intriguing conflicts, and her meticulous historical research than with her resolution of conflict and lack of dialogue. Her knowledge of this era of history was so complete, some claimed, that her protracted explanations and details of tribal life contributed to a sometimes plodding pace.
The Clan of the Cave Bear
Writing about The Clan of the Cave Bear in a Los Angeles Times Book Review article, Willard Simms remarked that ”painstaking and meticulous research went into this book. There’s an authenticity about the life styles and survival techniques of these cavemen that’s deeply moving.” John Pfeiffer praised Auel’s insight in the New York Times Book Review: ”There was a great and subtle gap between the Neanderthals and their successors, people like ourselves, and [Auel] has caught its essence beautifully. [In The Clan of the Cave Bear,] she has written an exciting, imaginative and intuitively solid book.” The relationship between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons also attracted the attention of Ken Ringle. Ringle pointed out in a Washington Post article that anthropologists have puzzled for decades over why Neanderthal man died out. Auel, while generally scrupulous to the known facts about Neanderthals, decided to endow them with a dominant racial memory that wedded them to the past, while Cro-Magnon man’s ability to learn and adapt better equipped him for the future. This melding of known fact with imagination may be Auel’s greatest achievement.
The Valley of Horses and The Mammoth Hunters
The sequels to The Clan of the Cave Bear received critical attention as well, though they were not universally praised as highly as Auel’s first novel. In a Washington Post review of The Valley of Horses, Octavia E. Butler, who said she enjoyed The Clan of the Cave Bear and believed that the author ”can create strong, believable characters and give them enough trouble, enough sustained, compelling conflict to keep a story moving and hold a reader’s interest,” nevertheless faulted Auel’s second volume for the tendency to show ”troubles, large or small, [being] all quickly resolved.. .just in time.” Detroit News critic John R. Alden, however, continued to see a timeless quality in Auel’s stories. Writing about The Mammoth Hunters, Alden said that the book ”is successful because it presents prehistoric people as human beings, with the same kinds of emotional conflicts we contemporary earthlings have today.” As for the adventure aspect, Alden added, ”If hunting a herd of mammoth at the base of a mile-high wall of ice doesn’t provoke your imagination, I don’t know what will.”
- Bergman, Linda S. Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd. ed. Detroit.: St. James Press, 1994.
- Alden, John R. Review of The Mammoth Hunters. Detroit News (December 8, 1985).
- Butler, Octavia E. Review of The Valley of Horses. Washington Post (September 13, 1982).
- Heltzel, Ellen Emery. ”The Return of Jean Auel.” Book (May-June 2002): 40-44.
- Pfeiffer, John. Review of The Clan of the Cave Bear. New York Times Book Review (August 31, 1980).
- Simms, Willard. Review of The Clan of the Cave Bear. Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 2, 1980).
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