Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Earth's Children Series: Not Just Ice Age Romance Novels

Replica of a painting in the Chauvet Cave in France.
The original is thought to be 31,000 years old.
I said in my last update that at some point I would tackle a book critique.  I've decided to think big and do six... Jean Auel's six, that is.

For those who are unfamiliar, Jean Auel's Earth's Children series began in 1980 with The Clan of the Cave Bear, about a Cro-Magnon girl losing her family in the prehistoric era and being raised by a clan of Neanderthals.  Clan became a runaway best seller and quickly established Auel as an author to watch.  Notably, Clan was not only the first novel of the series, but also Auel's first novel ever.  In fact, I think it was the first piece of fiction that she had ever written.  Let that sink in for a moment.  

Within 10 years, The Clan of the Cave Bear was followed by three other door-stopper best sellers: The Valley of Horses (1982), The Mammoth Hunters (1985), and The Plains of Passage (1990).  Then production stalled for 12 years, until The Shelters of Stone (2002) was released.  Then... more stall, before Auel released the purported last book of the series, The Land of Painted Caves (2011).

Each novel advances the story of Ayla, the girl orphaned in Clan.  We watch her grow from five to roughly 26 years of age, as she learns the ways of her Neanderthal family, meets Cro-Magnons like herself, then travels across a frozen continent to meet her sweetheart's kin in what was the Ice Age version of a big city.

Then she becomes God.  Or something.

The appeal of the Earth's Children series is multifold.  First, we quickly become bonded to Ayla, a fish out of water in a Neanderthal clan that is very different both physically and psychologically.  We root for her to find a place in her new family and to later overcome every obstacle that falls in her path.  Second, the series presents a way of life that is practically nonexistent now, except maybe in rainforests or on communes.  A time when woolly mammoths walked the earth, when humans lived in small bands on a frozen tundra, eating only what they killed with spears and knives that they had forged.  A time before television and smart phones, before massive plagues and smog.  A time when people understood what really mattered: family, survival, and lots and lots of sex.

Yes, that.  Much like Game of Thrones's "sexposition" scenes, Auel books after The Clan of the Cave Bear include several graphic sex scenes almost as if required by contract.  What begins as touching and sensitive becomes eye glazing and repetitive by The Plains of Passage.  Jean Auel defended the sex scenes by noting that sex would have been very important to prehistoric society as a way of ensuring its survival.  While that was no doubt true, would it have killed her to occasionally suggest, rather than throw it at us like a drenched towel?  Did she really have to include words like "swollen manhood" and "deep pink petals"?            

Ayla and Wolf in The Land of 
Painted Caves.
While the novels have won much-deserved praise for their portrayal of forgotten cultures, they have also received their share of criticism.  In addition to the abundant sex, the Earth's Children series has been criticized for its repetitiveness.  Events from past books are practically cut-and-paste into successive ones, even though devoted fans would have reread the series several times, and new readers would have the past books fresh in their minds.  Then there is the potent criticism that Ayla is a Mary Sue: so beautiful, so good at everything, and so idealized that she ceases to be a real person.  At several points in the series, she is raised to almost deity status, and by the end, it is clear that she will eventually be the most powerful among her people.

I have mixed feelings about Auel and her creation.  On the one hand, as an author trying to get a novel published, I see Auel as a hero.  In 1980, she was a 45-year old mother who had married in her teens and raised five children before putting herself through college.  She is truly the Rudy of novel writing.  People like her are not supposed to get published, much less be so successful.  And yet not only did she get published, but she also created the prehistoric novel genre.  Before Auel's novels, Neanderthals were viewed as "Ug-ug, I stoopid" creatures with huge clubs that they pounded into the dirt.  Based on the bounty of her local library and some survival lessons, Auel created a portrait of Neanderthals as intelligent, with their own rich culture and traditions.

Furthermore, I certainly can't hate the "You go girl!"-ness of The Clan of the Cave Bear.  Not only is it incredibly gratifying to watch Ayla survive and thrive in Neanderthal society, but in 1980, it was likely also a very powerful feminist statement.  Seeing Ayla's achievements made me root for her even in subsequent books, when it had become much less satisfying to do so.

On the other hand, I have many issues with Auel's writing.  They include Ayla's character arc, the presentation of her blond hunky "soul mate," and the way Auel dodges some very uncomfortable truths that threaten to undermine the power of her first novel.

Over the next several weeks, I will be looking at this series in at least six installments -- one for each book, and one or two other installments for any topics that need to be discussed separately.  For those of you who have no interest in this series, I will be alternating between posts about Earth's Children and posts about other topics.  My very next post will be about The Clan of the Cave Bear, but then the following post will be about a different topic.  I will try to continue posting at least twice a week.  Hope you stick around!

Next Time:  Jean Auel's best novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear.  But is that really all one can say about it?   

The Chauvet image came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.  The Land of Painted Caves image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.


  1. ...Apart from Ayla as the Inventor Of Everything, from the splint to domestication of the horse, to the blowjob...

    1. Why Bob, are you questioning the realism of Auel's writing? ;)

    2. No, no. Far be it from me to question the Genius Who Did All But Domesticate Fire.

      About the sex in Auel: I have no problems with sex in literature. However, I have a lot of problems with bad sex in literature. And Auel's sex scenes are very, very, very bad. Hell, I could do better, though I do say so myself.