Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Land of Painted Caves: Fool Me Twice...

And so we reach the final novel in the Earth's Children series.  It is worth mentioning that for most of the time between The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves, fans believed that seven novels were going to be published.  Auel had made a statement that she had enough material to produce a seventh novel.  So as the years passed, many of us hoped that the big delay was due to Auel writing the sixth and seventh novel together.  After all, wasn't that what she was supposedly doing when she wrote the fifth novel?  Since the sixth novel did not appear two or three years after the fifth, that seemed to be the only credible explanation.

Then when the announcement came that The Land of Painted Caves was Auel's last novel, many of us thought that meant the sixth and seventh novel had been combined to form a mega-novel even bigger than The Plains of Passage.  What could possibly await us?!  If Auel was going to stage the big Clan-Others confrontation, it would have to be here.

That said, fans' expectations had been lowered by The Shelters of Stone, and there was quiet acknowledgement that what Auel gave us would not be exactly what we wanted.  But still, she had to give us some of what we wanted, right?!

You have only to look at the Amazon reviews to know that the answer is a resounding no.  While Auel did give us one Easter egg in the final third, the major clash hinted at in the first three novels never came to pass.  We don't even get trading with Guban and Yorga's clan.  In fact, the Clan as a whole is very much a forgotten aspect of this novel.  Instead, what most of us thought was merely an incidental discovery turns out to be the novel's Big Deal.  Which begs the question: what the hell was the point of The Clan of the Cave Bear?

Plot Synopsis

(Note that on the surface, The Land of Painted Caves still had the potential to be a pretty good story.)  Ayla has begun training to be one of the zelandonia, which is very intensive and often causes her to place her family life second.  This, in turn, causes a rift to develop between her and Jondalar.  In addition to undergoing several "trials" in order to become worthy of the priesthood, Ayla also embarks on a lengthy "donier tour," where she examines cave paintings created by an earlier people.  Six years pass, and things finally come to a head when Ayla drinks a strange herbal mixture and ends up being "called" by the Mother.  During this calling, Ayla receives new words for the Mother's Song, telling her without a doubt that babies are created not just by women, but also by men.

When she arrives at the Zelandonii Summer Meeting, she learns that Jondalar has not been faithful to her, which sends her into a spiral of jealousy and despair.  The zelandonia officially make her one of them, and decide to share her new Gift of Knowledge at the Mother Festival.  Ayla tries to get even with Jondalar, and when he sees her having sex with the drunken Laramar, he explodes in a jealous rage.  Ayla feels so depressed that she finally agrees to go on a root journey with Zelandoni the First, not caring whether she ever returns from the void.  During the trip, she gets confronted by a group of people who chant cryptically: "The Mother is gone.  Only the Son remains."  Just when it seems like she is lost forever, Jondalar appears and calls her back.  They make up and agree to try and have more children.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Zelandonii try to absorb the new knowledge that without men, women cannot create babies.  

The Good

1.  The Return of the Mamutoi.  Many of us hoped, but I never really expected that Auel would bring back characters from The Mammoth Hunters.  So it was very exciting to learn that Danug and Druwez made a journey to visit Ayla after all, even if their insertion into the novel does feel a bit random.  I enjoyed learning about what had become of the Mamutoi since Ayla and Jondalar's departure, especially Ranec.  Though sadly, my long desired 'ship of Danug and Folara never takes place.

2.  Ayla's "Calling".  The mind trip that leads Ayla to be "called" by the Mother is rather cool, and certainly removes any doubt about Auel's mental sharpness when she wrote this novel.  In fact, the entire sequence is possibly my favorite in the novel -- not that I have much to choose from.  Ayla's visuals and sensations are very well described, and there is some black humor as well, what with Ayla thinking that she can just walk back to the Ninth Cave after her ordeal.  However, the power of the strange herbs makes me wonder why the root is given such importance, given that apparently the herbs can do the same thing, without sending Ayla into a void that could kill her.

3.  Ayla Understands Jealousy.  As eye-rolling as the Jondalar and Marona reveal is, I do like that it causes Ayla to understand what Jondalar was feeling in The Mammoth Hunters.  As interesting as it was that Ayla grew up in a society that did not know jealousy, it could be rather frustrating to those of us who are so familiar with the emotion.

The Bad

1.  Needs an Editor.  I thought I read that Auel's editor died before the completion of this novel and thought: "That makes sense."  But then I realized it was actually Auel's secretary and personal assistant.  So I don't really know why two-thirds of The Land of Painted Caves are so meandering and pointless.  Maybe Auel's editor lost her eyesight and some sharpness over the years?  If this is how The Land of Painted Caves reads edited, I shudder to think of how it read before.

2.  Repetition Is Repetitious.  Speaking of editing, Auel's editor did nothing to rein in the author's tendency toward repetition, which is worse than ever in this novel.  Did you know that Joplaya's son, Bokovan is a special child?  If so, it's probably because Auel mentions it three times in five pages.  Did you know that Ayla got a tattoo that other people are trying not to notice?

3.  No, Seriously, What a Meandering Mess.  Part Two, with the donier tour, has received its rightful share of criticism, but for me, Part One is even worse.  Nothing happens.  Ayla discusses colors and counting words with the zelandonia.  She and Jondalar visit families from other caves.  Jondalar takes on an apprentice.  Then suddenly there's a time jump, as if Auel thinks that merely by jumping ahead in time, she advances the story.

The "growing tension" between Ayla and Jondalar is almost nonexistent, except for when Jondalar asks, "Can I come, too?", like a little brother tagging along with his sister and her friends.  We certainly never see them talking about serious issues, despite being mated for several years, and despite being older and supposedly wiser.

Then there's the "donier tour," which takes Ayla, Jondalar, and Zelandoni into the southernmost parts of Zelandonii territory, or modern-day France.  Many fans have pointed out that Auel could have invested far more meaning in the cave paintings than just "Oh look, pretty painting!"  In any event, visiting the caves seems to have a dubious connection to Ayla's training.  Ayla briefly has an interesting story when she is faced with putting a Charoli-type, Balderan, to death, but then she doesn't need to make that choice because an angry mob does it for her.  Moral crisis averted!

Before I received my copy of this novel, I was told that Part Three was the only part where anything happens.  I therefore read Part Three first and then went back and read the other parts, and honestly, they added nothing to the experience.  Okay, I guess it was nice to know where Ayla got those psychotropic herbs from, but otherwise, the first two parts were a waste of time.  It's as if Auel wrote out the plot, realized she had only two hundred or so pages, and just slapped some filler on the front end to make it into a full novel.        

4.  Jonayla Sue.  When you think of a young child whose mother is frequently absent, what comes to mind?   Cranky and difficult at times?  Prone to throwing tantrums when her mother goes away?  Resentful?  Crying?  Pfft, perish the thought!  Jonayla is adorable, upbeat, and compliant, nothing more.  I had low expectations for Jonayla's character, but Auel managed to undercut them anyway.  

It's actually kind of depressing what an afterthought Jonayla is, to both the story and to Ayla.  Ayla shows far more interest in Jondalar than in her daughter.  "I can't wait to get to the Summer Meeting to see Jondalar!  Oh yeah, and Jonayla."  In some ways, it's not out of character for Ayla to neglect her children: when she was in medicine woman mode trying to save Iza, she forgot about Durc to the point where her milk dried up.  But they still had some warm, loving moments.  Even Ayla's warm moments with Jonayla feel perfunctory.  She expresses more interest in Bokovan.  By the way, did you know that he is a special child?

One thing I hoped for was if Marona returned to the story, the twist would be that she began mothering Jonayla while Ayla was busy with her training, first as a way of bringing Jonayla to her side, then because she genuinely cared for her.  But of course that wouldn't work, because it would open up a complex conflict that was not easily resolved, and we know Auel can't handle that.

5.  The Gift of Knowledge Is Handled Badly.  On my first read, I remember thinking that the Gift of Knowledge was rammed down people's throats.  On subsequent reads, I can see how badly it is handled on so many levels.  Right after Ayla's reveal, Zelandoni the First wants to make it an official part of the Zelandonii culture before the rest of the zelandonia start thinking about the ramifications (see p. 615 hardcover).  Yes, Doni forbid the zelandonia start thinking about new and earth-shaking information and planning how to ease it into their society to reduce negative impact.  No, instead it's better to just recite some new lines in the Mother's Song without any prior warning, and then leave people hanging afterward.  Feast time, people!
              
6.  Zelandoni the First.  I wavered between putting Zelandoni in the Good column or the Bad column.  On the one hand, I appreciate that Auel created a character you can't fully trust or root for.  Given how blandly good or bad her characters tend to be, Zelandoni's ambiguity is refreshing.  Yet I finally decided to move her to the Bad column because I blame her for No. 5.  Even if we didn't know that her choice likely paved the way for oppressive patriarchy, it was still a shitty thing to do, just dropping the new knowledge on people.

Then later, when Ayla is visibly depressed, Zelandoni decides it's the perfect time to play with the mysterious root that nearly killed her.  Way to look after your flock, First Among Those Who Serve.  

7.  Goodbye Clan.  Many people have debated the meaning of the opening scene, where Ayla willingly kills cave lions without first consulting her totem.  I'm just going to go with a crazy theory: the slaughter of cave lions was Ayla's way of making a harsh break with her totem, and with the Clan, so that she could fully embrace the Zelandonii and their religion.  From that point onward, Ayla might talk about her totem, but it would be like reciting lines of scripture in a church you attend only once a year.

8.  For That Matter, Goodbye Durc.  When I said in my The Plains of Passage critique that it felt realistic for Ayla to never see Durc again, I meant physically.  Like many people, I assumed that the root journey would set up one final meeting between mother and son, if only of their minds.  Durc does appear on Ayla's root journey, but it is clearly not the real Durc, just a symbol.  We learn nothing about the way Durc has been treated, or the type of man he has grown up to be, or what has become of the rest of Brun's clan.  I think if Auel gave us a meeting with Durc and nothing else, many fans would have been satisfied.  But no, she wouldn't even throw us that bone.

9.  Why Jondalar?  Why the Ninth Cave?  What is the point of Jondalar?  Are we really to believe that no one in Ice Age Europe was capable of loving Ayla as fiercely?  That if Ranec were Ayla's preferred mate, his love would not have brought her back from the void?

Jondalar is 30 years old by the end of the novel, yet no more mature than he was in The Mammoth Hunters.  Still avoids Ayla instead of telling her his feelings, still has violent rages borne of jealousy, and still has not an interesting thought in his head.  Anyone on the fence about his character would have been pushed over by his epically bad outcry: "HE'S MAKING MY BABY!"  How could anyone take him seriously after that?  Poor Danug, light years more mature despite being younger, must wonder how he ever looked up to this stupid lug.  What was the point of Ayla choosing him?  He does nothing that Ranec or another man couldn't do in his position.

Furthermore, what was the point of Ayla making an arduous journey across the continent to the cave where Creb's ancestors once lived?  What was the point if there was nothing special about that location apart from some pretty cave paintings?  Ayla couldn't have spread the Gift of Knowledge as a mamut?  The prior novels set it up so that something significant was awaiting Ayla at the end of her long journey.  The dream with the two sons, and the meeting with Guban and Yorga, suggested that it would be the setting of a major showdown between the Clan and the Others.  Instead, the Clan are nowhere to be found.

That brings up the final question: what was the point of The Clan of the Cave Bear?  By itself, of course, it is an excellent study of the differences between two types of human.  But beyond that, the series suggests that Ayla's life with the Clan had a purpose, that she will use her experiences to make a difference that is widely felt.  Instead, we see that Ayla is practically unneeded to change people's way of thinking about the Clan.  Even in The Mammoth Hunters, the Mamutoi might have accepted Rydag long ago if Mamut had told them about his experiences.    

Other Points Worth Mentioning

1.  Why Is Modernity Always So Bad?  Every time Ayla goes on a mind trip and vaults ahead in time, the modern era is always presented in a foreboding fashion.  The lines are too straight and the colors are unnatural *ominous music*.  I understand the past 100 or 200 years would come as a shock to anyone from that time, but come on, it's not like we haven't done anything good since then.  Yes, how dare we come up with cures for heart ailments like Rydag's, ways to painlessly extract tumors, or methods of travel that take hours instead of days.

2.  Instantly Fluent.  I like how Danug and Druwez are practically fluent in Zelandonii after, what, a few months?  Or how Jondalar and Ayla instantly remember their Mamutoi upon meeting them, without being even slightly rusty or struggling to remember certain words, despite an eight-year lack of use.

3.  Why Is Everyone So Eager to Remain Zelandonii?  It's a mystery as to why the Zelandonii are so much greater in number than any other people we've encountered.  Yes, some of the southern Zels are thinking of breaking off, but the mystery is why they've identified as Zelandonii for so long in the first place.  After all, it's not as though the Mamutoi and the Sharamudoi have remained the same people, or the Losadunai and the S'Armunai, yet both appear to be roughly the same distance apart as the northern and southern Zels.  

4.  Awkward Names.  It's bad enough that the Zelandonii love to list their extensive kinship ties.  But even simple names in this novel -- and this series -- can be incredibly awkward.  Such as Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Twenty-ninth Cave.  Or Zelandoni of the First Cave of Ancient Sacred Site Watchers.

5.  Jondalaaaaaaar!  Of the Zelandoniiiiiiiiiiiiiii!  That reminds me: the name Jondalar of the Zelandonii always makes me think something George of the Jungle might yell before he swings on a vine.  

6.  Picking Up That Hot Potato Again.  There wasn't much sex that I recall in this novel, apart fron Jondalar/Marona's and Ayla/Laramar's grotesque display.  I expected to talk much more about the laughably bad "Pleasures" scenes in the Earth's Children novels than I have.  Instead I've been fixated on the concept of consent and lack thereof where sex is concerned.  In The Land of Painted Caves, the potential rape scene that comes to mind is Ayla's "consent" to having sex with Laramar when she was clearly drunk out of her mind.  If she was sober enough to be aware of the situation and in control of her faculties when she gave consent, is that enough for it to be true consent?

The reason I keep bringing up rape and physical abuse in these novels is because I feel as though Jean Auel picked up a social hot potato when she wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear.  "Look at this modern woman overcoming oppressive male dictates and winning respect!  Just like woman today in 1980!"  Then as Auel fleshed out her series, she realized the implications of making Clan society so oppressive, that readers might not have any sympathy for their plight.  So Auel tried to hide the hot potato and pretend that she never picked it up in the first place.  "No, no, the Clan are just a poor oppressed people, a little slower than the Others, but completely worthy of respect.  They can't help being sexist -- they were just programmed that way."  Auel's attitude in the later novels seemed to be that the Clan were akin to robots who could only follow certain commands.  If a robot is programmed to kill and then does, is it the robot's fault?

Still, to accept the rigid view of the Clan in the novels after The Clan of the Cave Bear, you need to forget that she ever wrote Clan in the first place.  The characters in that novel belonged to a simple society, but their thinking was complex and their actions more flexible than one would expect.  You can't look at Iza and think that she's just blindly following her "memories," nothing more.  Yet somehow that's what I feel we're supposed to do, and it never made sense to me over the years I read and reread the series.

Conclusion

So after 31 years, a series that began with Neanderthals ends with them nowhere in sight.  Instead of the concluding novel providing greater insight into the Clan-Other relationship, it produces a revelation that surprises no one.  Men help make babies, everyone!  Who knew?


Next Time: Where did Auel go wrong, and what could she have done differently?    

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Shelters of Stone: Fool Me Once, Shame on You...

After a decade of impressive productivity, few would blame Jean Auel for wanting a rest.  The Plains of Passage alone must have been a beast from a research and storyline standpoint.  Its length is dangerously close to twice the length of The Clan of the Cave Bear.

So who could blame Auel if she took a year off before starting the long-anticipated "Ayla meets the Zelandonii" novel?  If she approached it fresh, the story would only be better for it.  By the time I read Auel's first four novels, two years had already elapsed since The Plains of Passage, so I would have to wait, oh, another three maybe?

And so the wait began.

As the years passed, I frequented an Earth's Children message board, where people started to question whether the fifth novel would ever be released.  Now and then Jean Auel's son would pop in to inform us of her progress (which boiled down to "No she's not dead.  Yes she's still working on it"), but Internet-averse Auel remained at a distance.  The delay was attributed to many things: the discovery of the Chauvet cave in the mid-1990s; health problems in her family; a desire to lecture at events and spend time with her grandchildren.

I stopped coming to the message board for a while.  Then one day in the early 2000s I returned and learned that the fifth novel was coming!  Fans had speculated for years, and now we would finally find out what happened!

As it turned out, Jean Auel's time delay would prove costly.  For not only did it cause her to lose the taste and flow of her series, but it also allowed her fans to come up with alternate -- often superior -- resolutions to the conflicts that she had created.  The major conflicts that she had set up were:
  • How the oh-so-superior Zelandonii would respond to the news that Ayla was raised by the Clan and had a half-Clan son.  Would they threaten to exile Ayla, and would Jondalar have to join her?
  • How Marona, the woman Jondalar left at the altar, so to speak, would respond to Jondalar's return.  In The Valley of Horses, she was built up as a rather formidable woman with a big temper.
  • Whether Zelandoni -- once Zolena, the last woman Jondalar loved -- would feel jealous or threatened by Jondalar's love for Ayla.
  • Whether there would be any confrontations between the Zelandonii and a local Clan.
After 12 long years, The Shelters of Stone finally premiered.  Expected to make a swan dive, it instead made a belly flop.  It sold well, but punctured the dreams of countless devoted fans.  Despite the build up, and Auel's promise that the Zelandonii were unlike any tribe that Ayla had ever seen, I find The Shelters of Stone to be Auel's most forgettable novel.

Which is not to say that it is an objectively bad novel.  I actually prefer it to The Plains of Passage, given that it features human interaction over long, ponderous descriptions of scenery.  However, it definitely fails to live up to the promise that was hinted at as far back as The Valley of Horses.  Moreover, Ayla herself would fail to live up to the "greatness" that others saw in her, most notably Mamut.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla and Jondalar finally arrive at the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, where Ayla meets Jondalar's extended kin and gets a look at "big city" neolithic life.  She also meets Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve the Mother, who (predictably) sees a greater destiny for Ayla than that of a mate and mother.

The novel covers nearly a year in the life of the Zelandonii, and includes events such as a massive funeral, the Zelandonii Summer Meeting, the discovery of a new cave, Ayla and Jondalar's mating, and the birth of Ayla's second child.  Along the way, Ayla encounters Jondalar's old flame, Marona; his former rival, now called Madroman; and his intriguing, never-before-mentioned cousin, Brukeval, whom Ayla quickly surmises is part Clan.  

The Good

1.  Ayla Returns to Slightly More Human Form.  Nothing like pregnancy to make a character clumsy and vulnerable!  Seriously, Ayla receives a welcome reduction to human size after having been a psychic superhero in The Plains of Passage.  She gets duped (rather uncharacteristically) into wearing something humiliating, feels nervous that Jondalar's people will force her to leave, and is unable to save one of her patients.  We even get a taste of what her "unusual" accent sounds like to others, which basically involves rolling her Rs.

The one off note is that while Ayla's pregnancy is documented, she shows curiously little interest in her daughter, either before or after she is born.  After the birth scene, one would think that Ayla would take a few moments to gaze at her daughter in wonder, note how she is like and different from Durc, maybe even think that Jonayla seemed weaker, or uglier, than her son.  Instead she just says: "She's perfect!"  I guess that's nice, but since her standard of "normal" was defined by the Clan, I'm surprised it doesn't influence her more here.

2.  The Zelandonia.  With the zelandonia, we get our first taste of a priesthood -- a female-dominated priesthood at that.  Until now, the shaman figures have mostly been individuals, from Creb to Mamut to S'Armuna.  But this time we see a network of priests actually consulting with one another and ranked according to experience and ability.  Auel's presentation of the zelandonia and their rituals is probably her richest since her portrayal of Clan culture in her first novel.  I especially liked seeing their rituals with regard to Shenovar's funeral (see below) and the ritual guiding Thonolan and Jetamio's spirits to the afterlife.  Of course the zelandonia must be complex and powerful, the biggest, baddest priesthood in town.  Otherwise, it would make no sense for Ayla to join them, since the unwritten rule of this series is that she can only be part of high status groups.

Zelandoni the First is an interesting character -- sort of like Tulie with real power.  Auel took pains to present her as formidable, canny, and thoughtful.  Also, even though Zelandoni is plus-size, she is portrayed as graceful and strong, never the object of disgust.  That said, it is interesting that Zelandoni's weight gain effectively removed her as a rival for Jondalar's affections (she was Zolena back in the day).  The novel makes it clear that while fat women can be respected, they certainly can never be *gasp* objects of lust or viable partners for hunky men like Jondalar.  While Jondalar might look at Zelandoni with fondness, he would never view her as a sex partner the way he would Ayla or (spoiler for the next novel) Marona.

3.  The Burial Ritual.  The funeral of Shenovar, a minor character, lasts far too long, but has several fascinating moments.  One consists of digging the burial pit, which requires the diggers to be completely covered to prevent lingering spirits at the burial site from possessing them.  The account of the digging and the cleansing afterward made me feel, for the first time since The Clan of the Cave Bear, like I was peeking at a world quite foreign to my own.  Also interesting is the account of the line at the burial feast, where Marthona subtly arranges for Ayla to walk with the highest-ranking members of the Ninth Cave rather than at the end with the lowest-ranking members.

4.  Brukeval.  In this novel, Brukeval has the potential -- potential -- to be a very interesting character.  At the time I read Shelters, knowing nothing of the final installment, I thought he could have a very good story arc.  Yes, it is rather unbelievable that Jondalar never mentioned a cousin whose grandmother was raped by a member of the Clan, but at least we have another significant character with a Clan connection.  What is more, like Brugar, there is a sense that Brukeval's mind has been warped by his being caught between two worlds.  Brukeval tries to deny his Clan background, which makes him sensitive to any "flathead" slurs aimed at him or otherwise.  He even threatens to become violent when Ayla presses him to acknowledge his Clan side.  Will he be reformed, or will his anger lead him to take drastic, violent action?  Sadly (spoiler) his story has no satisfying conclusion.

5.  Ayla Kind of, Sort of, Almost Gets It.  When Ayla considers the situation with Brukeval's grandmother, she kind of, sort of, almost starts to understand that for Others, the Clan practice of freely raping women to satisfy their needs wouldn't fly.  She notes that the society in which Brukeval's grandmother was raised would not condone women being ordered about as in Clan society.  That said, Ayla does not make the final connection, which is that Clan "satisfying their needs" with an Other -- or with their own women -- is virtually indistinguishable from Others raping a member of the Clan.  While there are no roving bands of Clan raping helpless Others, any woman in that situation would be expected to obey, whether she wanted sex or not.  If she tried to escape, the man would be permitted to physically abuse her and could easily overpower her.    

6.  Ayla Saves a Family.  Okay, Saint Ayla does rear her head a few times in this novel, but in one case I approve.  She intervenes to save the life of a sickly baby belonging to resident white trash Laramar and Tremeda, and helps their other children along the way.  It just goes to show that even the Ice Age had its slums, slum dwellers, and people who looked the other way.    

7.  Finally Ayla and Jondalar Mate, Have Children.  Despite how boring I find Ayla's character, the part of me that bonded with the little girl in The Clan of the Cave Bear was happy to see her finally settle down with someone she loved.  Her first night mated to Jondalar and her introduction to their new home are rather sweet.  I'm also thankful that her daughter's birth is not harrowing like her son's.

The Bad

1.  What Zelandonii Prejudice?  Prior to this novel, a big deal was made about the Zelandonii sense of cultural superiority.  They are especially prejudiced toward the Clan, and even more so toward children of mixed spirits.  So when Ayla tells Jondalar's family about being raised by the Clan in Chapter Four, we expect some sort of significant reaction.  Instead we learn that Willomar (inexplicably Willamar now) has always long suspected that the Clan were human beings, and everyone else is sort of okay with accepting that.  Yes they express more outrage upon learning that Charoli raped Madenia than Clan women, but there is no thundering: "I won't have MY son mating someone who lived with those filthy animals!!!"

However, even people who accept the Clan in theory might have trouble accepting that Jondalar's would-be mate gave birth to a half-Clan child.  Recall that Jondalar did not express complete revulsion until he learned about Durc.  Yet Ayla and Auel never give us the opportunity to see their reaction to this news.  Ayla, who has always been honest and forthcoming about her Clan past, suddenly clams up when faced with having to mention Durc to Jondalar's family.  In some ways that is understandable: Ayla was okay with leaving any place that wouldn't accept her before.  But now she is her future mate's home, the place she wants to be home.  While in theory, Ayla could leave the Ninth Cave, she is tired of traveling.

So yes, it is understandable, but Auel hardly spends any time on the psychology behind Ayla's decision.  So Ayla's attitude seems like a copout, and Jondalar's worry about his family's reaction was for naught.

What we see otherwise is that while the Zelandonii are hardly on board with Clan-Other mating, their opposition lacks punch.  Zelandoni (the only one other than Jondalar who knows about Durc) considers murdering Ayla's baby if it is born mixed, but when put in a position to take a stand against a "mixture," she instead oversees the mating of Joplaya and Echozar.  Jondalar didn't even realize that Brukeval's mother was a mixture, which I find hard to believe.  The only one who expresses genuine loathing of mixed children is Brukeval, and that is because he feels like an outsider.

In fact, Echozar's mere presence could play a huge role in breaking stereotypes about the Clan and mixed children.  He is, after all, a true mixture whose mother was Clan.  You could even argue that between Ayla and Joplaya, Joplaya is the more courageous one, mating someone who she knew would receive disapproval instead of Mr. High Status Blond Beefcake.  Sorry Ayla: I guess you weren't needed to save the world, after all.

2.  Marona Sputters.  As stated above, Marona was presented in The Valley of Horses as a somewhat formidable figure.  In the first Jondalar-Thonolan chapter, Thonolan notes: "Marona really knows how to please a man -- when she wants to.  But that temper of hers...  You're the only man who has ever been able to handle her, Jondalar, though there are plenty who would take her, temper and all."  Based on the women characters in previous installments, I was expecting Marona to be a mature woman like Serenio, or perhaps a basically decent woman with a fiery temper like Tricie.  Instead, she turns out to be a poor man's Regina George.

I suppose it's to Auel's credit that only now do we get a bitchy Mean Girls character in the Earth's Children series.  Instead of complicating Jondalar and Ayla's relationship in intriguing ways -- such as if Marona had a son for whom Jondalar felt responsible -- she only serves to vindicate how right Jondalar was to dump her in the first place.  To get back at Jondalar, she decides to hurt Ayla... by tricking her into wearing something stupid.  Which completely blows up in Marona's face when Ayla responds with class and dignity.  Take that... um, woman nursing hurt feelings who didn't project them at the right source!  Marona is then reduced to a cartoon baddie who vows revenge while rubbing her hands together and cackling.

If anything, Marona's rotten-to-the-core attitude makes me question Jondalar's judgment.  How could he have ever thought that a mating between them would work?  Okay, he was young and felt pressured to settle down, and on the surface, Marona looked like the ideal woman.  But given the troubling things we learn about Marona and her mother in this novel and the next, I'm surprised Marthona would condone the match.  Isn't she supposed to be wise and discerning?  In any event, Jondalar looks like a huge heel for not telling Ayla about his history with Marona, or about her spiteful nature.    

3.  Jondalar Is a Bore.  It's really too bad there were no complications with Marona, because The Shelters of Stone reveals what we only suspected before: when Jondalar is not worried about Ayla or wanting to go home, he is an empty vessel.  Consider that he is finally home among his people after a five-year absence.  Wouldn't you expect him to think about how strange it feels to be "home" now that he has been out in the wider world?  Maybe he would wonder if certain people were still alive or if they had changed?  Maybe he would view his culture as narrow minded and self absorbed in a way that he had never done before?  Wouldn't you expect to hear more stories and surprises about Jondalar from the people who knew him?

Nope, none of that.  Or at least very little.  Jondalar comes home, is like "Wow, it's great to be home!", and proceeds to act as if he never left.

4.  No Clan.  Once again, the Clan is only present in the form of Echozar and Brukeval.  But it's not just that no Clan member is physically present: Ayla is also slowly putting aside her Clan ties.  The most significant example of this is when she takes off her Clan amulet containing signs from her totem when she puts on her mating outfit.  While there are some parts of her Clan past that I wouldn't mind Ayla shedding, her amulet is not one of them.  Her amulet and her totem gave her strength during all of her ordeals, and have been a significant part of her character up until now.      

5.  The Mother's Song.  It must have taken Jean Auel nearly all of the 12 years between installments to write the Zelandonii Mother Song.  She is clearly quite proud of it, for she repeats it or refers to it several times throughout the novel.  Had she shown it once and then maybe a short snippet here or there, it would have been fine, but she reprints the whole thing more than once.  It includes lines like: "The Mother was lonely.  She was the only."  What is this, a Taylor Swift song?  I can't imagine that anyone would find it pleasant to sing, but I guess it was their bible or what have you.

6.  Nothing Really Happens.  The entire plot line of The Shelters of Stone could be summed up as: "Ayla and Jondalar arrive at the Ninth Cave and live there for nine or ten months."  There was no real plot to speak of in The Plains of Passage, but at least that one had a little urgency.  In this novel, every day starts like: "What should we do today?  Why don't we visit Blankazar and Whateva at the Second Cave?"  Most of the people Ayla encounters, except for Marona or Brukeval, are pleasantly bland.  So much for the tense standoff that we all predicted.

Other Things Worth Mentioning

1.  Writing Irritants.  I haven't said enough about this, but Auel has some irritating writing tics, and not just having to do with sex.  The narrative redundancy is bad enough, with the cut-and-paste recounts of past novels worse than ever, but Auel is even redundant in her choice of language.  For instance, the people looked at Ayla with "shocked surprise."  You mean they looked at her with shock, or they looked at her with surprise.  "Shocked surprise" is just redundant.  Another example is "anxious worry": he looked at her anxiously, or he looked at her with worry -- there is no need for both.  It's annoying!  Please stop!

2.  Monarchies and Nepotism.  I like how the Zelandonii act as if their leadership isn't hereditary.  As if the Ninth Cave just happened to decide that Joharran was the best possible person to lead them, and his parents being leaders had nothing to do with it.  Likewise, it's just a coincidence that one family in the Second Cave spawned not only the Zelandoni of that cave, but also the leader.  I'm sure no one leaned on the other cave members.  And if Joharran dies before Jaradal comes of age, people will naturally turn to Jondalar to be leader because he is just so wise.

3.  Brun, Broud, Brugar, Brukeval...  What's with all of the Br- names for those associated with the Clan?

Conclusion

Jean Auel's aversion to dealing with true conflict finally has serious storyline ramifications.  But at least she has one more chance to get it right.  Right?!


Next Time:  The Land of Painted Caves.  And in the end, the love you take... MAKES MY BABY!!!

Image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's Novel Wednesday! Another Chapter of My Novel

The last chapter is here.

For those in mourning that Downton Abbey's fourth series won't air until January 2014 in the U.S. (stupid PBS), get your country house fix here.  I'll confess that this isn't a full chapter -- the full chapter would take up an entire page.  But between this and my last chapter, it should give you a flavor of what my novel is about.  Again, legitimate feedback is welcome, either in the comments below or by clicking on the About Me link and hitting Email.

**********************


Mount Edgecumbe House, taken by Philip Halling

Bella’s room.  Upon seeing it for the first time since her death, Elizabeth had the strong impulse to flee.  But she promised to come sort through her possessions, and here she was.

Except for the drawn curtains, the room looked just as it had when she was alive.  Her water basin was filled.  Brushes sat on her dressing table at varying angles, where her maid had last laid them down.  A list sat beside them, with “WHEN I AM ABLE” written carefully at the top.  But of course, she would never be able.  Elizabeth blinked back tears and tried to compose herself, as Isabella entered from the sitting room with a small box of items. 

Her niece seemed even more impervious than she did during their last meeting.  When Elizabeth arrived, she found her talking to that Miss Pieretto, the foreign woman that Bella never liked.  Isabella seemed to take her interruption as a grave insult, for she had barely said two words since.  Her eyes were intense, though.  Elizabeth had the feeling of being watched even when her niece’s face was turned.  Now Isabella laid the box on the bed and opened it. 

“I could not find anything in the sitting room that mamma would have wanted to part with,” she said.

Inside the box were several small brooches, rings, and other small jewels.  Elizabeth could remember seeing Bella wear them at some time or other, but they held no special meaning.  The brooch that Bella always wore, with locks of her dead child’s hair, had been buried with her.  “Surely she meant for you to have these things,” Elizabeth said in an uncertain tone.  “And maybe your brothers, when they marry.” 

“The only thing she promised me was a silver brooch that grandmother St. John gave her,” Isabella responded, “which I cannot find.  I don’t want to suspect Dallas or the other maids, but mamma was always careful with her things.” 

“Perhaps it fell off and slipped through a crack when she was unaware,” said Elizabeth.  For reasons that she could not place, Isabella’s mention of the brooch gave her a queer feeling.

Isabella’s eyes bored into her.  What did I say wrong? Elizabeth wanted to cry out.  “Nothing at all interests you, then?” Isabella demanded.  “Not even for Charlotte or dear Meg?”  This time she could not prevent some acid from leaking into her tone, and Elizabeth cringed at the way it laced the last two words.  Yes, I’m sure you care a great deal about ‘dear Meg.’  Thankfully, Meg was almost completely well.  Her health improved dramatically when she learnt about Edward’s condition.  She and Elizabeth spent hours talking about the dishes that they could prepare for him and how they could convince him to eat.  It was not that either thought Isabella incapable, but both sensed that he would be more amenable to someone outside of the Warpole family.  Would you do the same thing in her place?

“I didn’t come to collect anything,” Elizabeth said awkwardly.  “I came to offer help if you needed it.”

She wished that she had the warm grace of her sister, Mary.  Isabella seemed to respond to her most when she was there.  But alas, the Cryers had returned to Warwickshire, to the school where Martin was headmaster.  Now there was just Elizabeth, to whom her husband would always beg: “Please, my dear, try to think of what you should tell them, not what you would like to tell them.”  The comforting things that she planned to say fled her mind the moment she was faced with Isabella.  Elizabeth searched for words that her niece might actually respond to, and fell upon: “Your mother’s journals.  Have you found them?  She told me once that she meant for you to have them.”

Isabella shook her head a little, as if coming out of a trance.  “Mamma kept them all in her chest,” she said, moving to the foot of the bed and lifting the lid.  Inside, journals were stacked neatly in two columns, either by Bella herself, or by Isabella more recently.  There must have been at least twenty of them.  Elizabeth reached for one on the top left, and when Isabella did not discourage her, opened it to the first page.  Before Elizabeth had read a word, she knew by the fragile yellow pages that the journal was several years old.  She seems almost afraid of them, Elizabeth noted.  Of course, what girl wouldn’t find it painful to read the thoughts of a mother so recently gone?  Yet each journal entry read like one of Bella’s lists: “Got up at 5 o’clock.  Spoke to Mrs Manson about the green room.  Had breakfast with Mr W, ham & eggs, toast & tea.  Took a quarter-hour walk at 10 o’clock…”  Perhaps the confessions came later.  Elizabeth’s relief almost outweighed her disappointment.

She laid the journal back on the pile, which was next to a box of drawings so precious to Bella that Elizabeth did not think she could discuss them without breaking down.  She needed to tell Isabella what they meant, though, in case Isabella didn’t know.  In case she thought that they were just rubbish and should be burned.  Elizabeth glanced up and saw that Isabella was no longer by the bed.  Instead, she was at the door, talking urgently to Dallas on the other side.  She can’t already be confronting her.

“Isabella, dear…?”

The girl said one last word and then closed the door abruptly.  She turned around, and something about her tall black form against the dark wood made her seem threatening.  “I wanted to make certain that we wouldn’t be disturbed,” she said.

“I don’t think Dallas would be such a distraction--”

“Aunt Liza,” Isabella broke in, “you said that you wanted to help me.  You can help me by answering some questions about the way mamma died.”

Elizabeth’s throat felt dry.  She knew that this time would come, and perhaps that was the main reason why she had dreaded visiting Bella’s room.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “If I’m able.”

Isabella moved away from the door, closed the lid of Bella’s chest, and sat down on top of it.  Elizabeth sat awkwardly in the chair beside Bella’s dresser.  “And if they are not the answers you want to hear, could you bear it?” Elizabeth challenged her niece. 

“Yes, of course,” Isabella said irritably.  “I am not some weak little girl.”  No, Elizabeth thought, with some bewilderment.  She recalled seeing a white-faced girl in bed, struggling with each breath, whilst Bella moved about her like a frantic bird.  It seemed like only yesterday -- and in the grand scheme, it was only yesterday.  She had other memories -- more than she could count -- of Isabella as a sickly child.  Small, pale, and thin, with little energy and even less patience.  Yet now, it was as if Bella’s death had shaken off the last of her infirmaries.  She looked strong now, and hungry.

“I want to know about last summer,” Isabella said earnestly, leaning closer.  “I want to know about the women who killed mamma.”

Note that use of the photograph above does not mean Philip Halling endorses this work.  This work has been registered and may not be reproduced in any form without my express permission. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Plains of Passage: Ayla Ascends

Though Jean Auel's fourth installment of the Earth's Children series is widely regarded as the weakest of the first four, it is looked upon more favorably in comparison to the final two installments.

The Plains of Passage is still "early Auel," part of a remarkable 10-year bout of productivity that produced four giant, detailed novels.  Whatever its faults, it still maintains the tone and characterization of previous novels, and it still seems to harbor some ambitions for its characters.

That said, I found The Plains of Passage to be a grind after The Mammoth Hunters.  Unlike the latter book which -- whatever its faults -- had one tense plot line throughout, the plot of The Plains of Passage is "Ayla and Jondalar travel to Jondalar's home."  That means a lot of lengthy travel sequences of variable interest, intercut with sometimes interesting interaction with other tribes.

I would have found The Plains of Passage to be a lot fresher if we had not already seen some of this in The Valley of Horses.  Yes, we don't meet exactly the same people, and yes, different things happen with those tribes, but overall, there is no sense of "Wow, I didn't know people lived like that!".  I would have been a lot more intrigued if, for instance, we were meeting the Sharamudoi for the first time.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla and Jondalar spend a year traveling from the Mamutoi Summer Meeting to Jondalar's home, the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii (in modern-day France).  Along the way, they encounter familiar tribes like the Sharamudoi, along with some new faces, like Attaroa and the S'Armunai.  They also face countless natural dangers, such as crossing treacherous rivers and navigating across a glacier.

The Good

1.  Still the Sharamudoi.  While they lose a few points for sending Serenio off to someplace where she cannot inconvenience Jondalar, at least they left behind her son, Darvo (now Darvalo).  Nothing too noteworthy happens with the tribe, but it is good to see them nonetheless.  It would have been much better, though, if like Ayla, we were meeting them for the first time.

2.  Some Exciting Nature Sequences.  As I've noted, Auel does action sequences fairly well.  One of my favorite scenes involves crossing the treacherous Sister River, where Ayla is nearly overcome by hypothermia.  Another favorite is the sequence where Ayla and Jondalar must cross the glacier.  Oh no, they need to hurry, or they could fall through the melting ice!  I also like the sequence where Whinney is carried off with the wild horses.  Not all authors would think about animal threats/temptations to other animals, but Auel does.

3.  Return of the Clan (Sort of).  The Clan appears in two forms.  The first consists of Ayla's dreams about Creb, reminding us of The Clan of the Cave Bear, where many of the characters were given rich personalities.  The second consists of Guban and Yorga, whom Ayla and Jondalar meet on their journey.  While Guban and Yorga are the first Neanderthals to interact with Ayla since Clan, they are significantly different from Creb, Brun, or Iza.  Guban is pretty much gruff and one-dimensional, and sometimes seems to be speaking a pidgin language (repeatedly calling Yorga his "yellow-hair").  Yorga is shy and without personality.  If Auel wanted to use them to highlight the Clan's human qualities, she failed.

4.  The Wolf Women.  Even though I have some real problems with the way Attaroa and the Wolf Women of the S'Armunai tribe are portrayed (see below), Auel's stab at explaining the reasons for their behavior is pretty interesting.  Ayla and Jondalar's conversation with S'Armuna is one of the more page-turning scenes in the novel.

5.  Sexual Healing.  Yes, Jondalar's great healing schlong is at it again.  This time, the lucky recipient is Madenia of the Losadunai, who was raped by Charoli's gang and now hates and fears all men.  As corny as "Pleasures" are in these novels (and they are especially corny in this one), it is again nice that sex is being used to help a young woman feel comfortable, and to realize that not all men are abusive.     

6.  The Lanzadonii.  I was happy to finally meet some of Jondalar's kin besides Thonolan, and I would have been happy to stay with the Lanzadonii a bit longer.  Dalanar's little off-shoot tribe is pretty interesting: there is his Asiatic mate Jerika; Hochaman, the "father of her hearth," whose Continent crossing back in the day makes Ayla and Jondalar's look like a casual stroll; Joplaya, Jerika's daughter with Dalanar, who secretly pines for Jondalar; and finally Echozar, a "mixture" like Durc or Rydag.  The not-quite-love triangle between Joplaya, Ayla, and Jondalar is a new feature.  Although Auel does not spend much time with it here or in subsequent novels, it is nice to see two women in love with the same man without it degenerating into a catfight.      

7.  He Really Is Gone.  At one point early in the novel, Ayla and Jondalar have a choice as to whether they want to find Ayla's clan, or leave it behind forever.  While it would have been gratifying to see Ayla and Jondalar ride in on their horses and take revenge on Broud, their decision to leave feels much more realistic.  That Ayla never meets Durc again is one of the better aspects of the series.  Sometimes you can't go home again.  

The Bad

1.  Auel Runs Out of Personalities.  This is the book where, to me, the personalities of the different tribes began blurring together.  For instance, Roshario was already established in The Valley of Horses as a varient of Iza, the concerned mother figure.  Then Nezzie was yet another varient of Iza.  After a while, I stopped seeing anything unique about the people Ayla and Jondalar encountered, except for Attaroa, and that's just because she's a psycho.  It struck me that Auel had established so many relationships and personalities over the course of the series, she just burnt out.  This would become more of a problem in the final two installments.

2.  Redundancy.  Auel's efforts to portray the rigors of Ice Age traveling are admirable.  We receive detailed information about the vegetation, the weather, and the animal life in each area.  Admirable as it is, it makes The Plains of Passage damn boring to read.  Not only are there more dull nature descriptions than ever before, but everything else feels repetitious.  To me, this is the first book where information from the previous novels feels cut-and-pasted in.  Moreover, Ayla constantly feels angsty about Durc and her past with the Clan.  People they meet repeatedly ask Ayla why she did not get a tattoo if she is a mamut.  Jondalar constantly gets irritated with Wolf.  Even the sex seems cut-and-pasted into the story, on what feels like every 10 pages or so.

3.  They're Just Boring.  Not long ago, a reviewer brought up the "Julie Taylor Test": the test of a good actor is whether you can imagine the inner life of the character he/she plays.  If you can't, ask yourself if you can imagine the inner lives of the other characters.  While this test applies to actors, I think that it could also apply to the writing of characters.  Can you imagine the character's inner life?  If not, can you imagine the inner lives of the characters around him/her?

I would say both Ayla and Jondalar flunk the Julie Taylor Test.  If Ayla didn't think about the Clan or Jondalar, what would she think about?  If Jondalar didn't have Ayla to irritate him or his family to worry about, what would he think about?  (Stop that!  That's dirty!)

If you try to think of something and come up blank, that suggests a character problem.  Face it, Ayla never had an interesting personality, not even in The Clan of the Cave Bear.  She faced and overcame great challenges, and showed a lot of bravery and skill.  But we never thought "What interesting stories she tells," or "What unique thoughts she has," unless you count her amazing "discovery" that sex can lead to babies.  I related to Jondalar's angst during The Mammoth Hunters, but he's just not that interesting when he's not thinking about Ayla.

That becomes a problem when, for long stretches of the novel, they are by themselves.  At one point, Auel mentions that Ayla and Jondalar stayed up one night and never ran out of things to talk about, and I literally could not picture that scene.                  

4.  Ayla the Superhero.  That brings me to this point: the Ayla I started following is no longer present in the series.  The Ayla I became invested in lost her parents and her entire culture in one fell swoop, then nearly died from exposure herself.  Even after she was rescued by the Clan, the odds were against her.  But that little girl learned to survive and managed to carve out a life for herself.  She wasn't always perfect, but she tried.  Sometimes she would wake up screaming, remembering the earthquake that killed her mother.  In The Valley of Horses, she briefly saw her mother's face in a dream.  Then her mother, and her original people, were never thought of again.

With each book, Ayla has gotten more and more "special," and now she is pretty much a bona fide superhero.  She rides in and sets Roshario's arm after Shamud has (conveniently) died.  She rides into the S'Armunai camp and, with the perfect throw of a spear, frees Jondalar from certain death.  She raises an oppressed people from the dirt.  She has psychic dreams warning her of danger.  She speaks words of wisdom like: "Cruelty mothers cruelty, pain breeds pain, abuse fosters abuse."

Some people support the deification of Ayla.  They believe (and I suspect this was Auel's intention *SIGH*) that Ayla is meant to represent all people, not just a specific people.  Not only that, but she is meant to serve as the peacemaker, the bridge, between Others and the Clan.  Not me -- I want Ayla to stay human.  I remember that scared little girl who had even her name taken from her.  When I read each successive installment, I was hoping to see her get some answers about where she came from, even a vague allusion to a tribe where the shaman, her mate, and her child went on a short journey.  Alas, it was not to be.  If I wanted to read about a boring blonde superwoman, I could just read Barbie fanfiction.    

5.  Again, No Repudiation of Clan Sexism.  Remarkably, every time Ayla discusses the Clan, she treats their sexism almost like a quirk, like a quaint part of their character.  Ayla explains the Clan's sexist practices to Jondalar, but does not comment on them or seem to draw any deeper inferences from them.  Also remarkably, Jondalar never expresses shock or outrage.

For that matter, Auel never takes a critical stance toward the Clan's sexism.  During the Guban and Yorga episode, we learn that "yellow-hair" (why even call her by name?) is Guban's second mate because his first one did not produce sons.  His first mate was not too happy, but she learned to accept it like a "good Clan woman."  Of course, what this "good Clan woman" really thought, we will never know.  For that matter, we don't hear much from Yorga, other than that she wanted to kiss "ugly" Jondalar when he rescued her from Charoli's band.  

Then there are the S'Armunai.  Ayla learns that Attaroa, the leader of a woman-dominated S'Armunai camp, was once mated to a cruel leader named Brugar.  Brugar constantly beat and humiliated her, and encouraged the other men to treat the women as lesser beings.  The women were not allowed to touch tools and had to sit and be tapped before they could speak.  Finally Attaroa could not take it any more, and with the help of the resident shaman, S'Armuna, she killed Brugar and the other women enslaved the men.  Attaroa's past experiences warped her mind and turned her into a brutal dictator, intentionally crippling men and killing them in terrible ways.

Ayla realizes that Brugar was a "mixture," one-quarter Clan, and surmises that he once lived with the Clan, which was where he picked up the Clan customs for treating women.  Yet remarkably, Ayla never draws a deeper inference, such as how unhealthy these Clan customs are, that they can warp the mind of an otherwise normal woman (we are told that Attaroa had bad experiences prior to Brugar, but not what those experiences were).  She doesn't think: "If I had stayed with the Clan, maybe that would have been me."  To her credit, she does sort of seem to get that the two could be related, stating: "The evil is Attaroa's, and, perhaps belongs, too, to those who treated her so badly."  Perhaps?!  

Ayla seems to attribute Brugar's cruelty to him being an outsider in Clan society, without having any real basis for these assumptions.  Even if Brugar were an outsider, what exactly was inaccurate about what he brought back?  Women can't touch tools?  Women can be beaten?  The way it is written, Brugar's edicts were not a big deal until a woman was finally beaten to death.  The other S'Armunai thought it was a joke or a game until then.  In other words, Clan customs are perfectly fine until they turn you into a Broud.  What Ayla and Auel never seem willing to admit is that by making the other gender lesser than you, you already are a Broud.

Instead, the Clan are perpetual victims in this novel.  Roshario and Dolando's son was killed while forcing a Clan woman, and in revenge, Dolando led a massacre against other Clan members.  Charoli's gang rapes Clan women.  Brugar's grandmother was supposedly forced by a member of the Others.  Guban got injured defending Yorga from Charoli's gang.  And so on.

Meanwhile, it is the women who rose up against "the Clan way" who are portrayed as evil, who clearly need to be stopped.

That is not to say that members of a culture with some truly ugly features cannot also be victims.  Just that it would be nice if at least one of Auel's characters acknowledged: "Gosh, the Clan and the Others are both kind of assholes." 

Points Worth Mentioning

1.  The "Mother's Song" Is First Mentioned Here.  I didn't realize this before, but the infamous Mother's Song of the last two installments gets its start in this novel, when Jondalar recites a few verses (p. 269 paperback).  Some of the words changed a little between installments, with "Her blood clotted and dried into red-ocred soil/But the luminous child made it all worth the toil" becoming "Her dried clotted blood turned to red-ocred soil/But the radiant child made it all worth the toil."  I guess 12 years gave Auel enough time to perfect it.

2.  Despite Brugar, No Mention of Brukeval.  Brukeval was almost certainly not conceived until The Shelters of Stone, or Jondalar would have mentioned him during S'Armuna's account of Brugar, even in passing.

Conclusion

On this latest read-through, I found more to like in The Plains of Passage than I previously remembered, but it really is the beginning of the end.  The novel concludes with Ayla anticipating her meeting with the Zelandonii, and our expectations are nearly as great.  Unfortunately, the Zelandonii never live up to them.


Next Week:  The Shelters of Stone.  Marona is a cheerleader, the Zelandonii aren't really prejudiced, and other great discoveries.


The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Mammoth Hunters: Can't Quite Look Away...

We now come to what is widely regarded as the "last good" Jean Auel novel.  Whether The Mammoth Hunters even qualifies as good in the objective sense is a matter of debate, but I will say that I found it much more readable than The Valley of Horses.

Ayla finally meets a whole group of Others like herself.  A group that just happens to be called the Lion Camp.  And happens to house a shaman who once lived with Ayla's clan, as well as a Clan-Others "mixture" like Durc.  Could it be that Ayla was meant to live with this specific group?  *pregnant pause*

The Lion Camp also features the Earth's Children series first Other of Color, named Ranec.  It is with Ranec that we first get a taste of that dreaded convention: the love triangle.

Happiness makes for dull reading, so it is not surprising that there is no smooth sailing once Ayla and Jondalar reach the Lion Camp.  However, what many fans object to is the extent to which the Love Triangle From Hell eats up the story, overshadowing good and bad plot points alike.  If the Love Triangle were at least honest and coherent, its dominance could be tolerated.  Instead, it requires Ayla, Jondalar, and the Lion Camp to be profoundly stupid.

That said, for whatever reason, this is the Earth's Children novel I have reread the most.  Maybe it's the can't-quite-look-away-from-a-car-crash feel.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla and Jondalar meet the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi tribe as they are leaving Ayla's valley, and are invited to stay by the camp's headman, Talut.  The Mamutoi survive by hunting mammoth in the summer, and the Lion Camp consists of a subterranean dwelling on the open plain that is made from mammoth bones.  Within the dwelling are several hearths, including the Fox Hearth, which is occupied by Ranec.  A young and talented carver, Ranec becomes instantly infatuated with Ayla, spurring Jondalar's jealousy.  Jondalar doesn't know why he should be jealous when he has not known Ayla for too long and his (and the Mamutoi's) culture does not condone possessiveness.  Nonetheless, he can't stop feeling competitive with Ranec.

Finally, Ayla accepts the Mamutoi's offer to become one of their tribe.  Jondalar's jealousy reaches an exploding point when on the night of her induction ceremony, Ayla goes off to sleep with Ranec.  Ayla does so under the (supposed) belief that Ranec has given her the Clan "signal" for sex and that she has no choice.  From that point onward, Jondalar refuses to talk to Ayla, and no one in the Lion Camp will tell Ayla what is going on (even though everyone else seems to know exactly what is happening).  Confused by Jondalar's behavior, Ayla draws closer to Ranec, to the point where she promises to mate with him at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting.    

Meanwhile, with the help of Mamut, the Lion Camp shaman, and Rydag, a mute half-Clan child, Ayla comes to terms with her past and accepts that she will never see Durc again.  Instead, Mamut tells her that she has a much greater purpose.                

The Good

1.  Negotiations.   One thing Auel does really well, as we saw with Brun's councils in The Clan of the Cave Bear, is portray small-scale decision making.  We see the full range of dynamics within a group, and how small decisions can carry great importance beyond the immediate issue at hand.  I thought this was portrayed very effectively in the scene where Frebec demands more space for the Crane Hearth.  The entire camp voices their opinions and then the matter is resolved in as fair a manner as possible.  Yet the result is that Frebec wins more than just a few feet of space.  He also proves that he has enough status to receive more space -- from the headwoman's hearth, no less -- despite his humble beginnings.  Frebec's pride in being accepted by the Lion Camp is something that he uses to a good end later in the novel.

The bride price negotiations are also fascinating, though I mention below why they are also problematic.  They hint at a culture far more layered (and acrimonious) than the "live and let live" Lion Camp attitude would suggest.

2.  Detailed Culture.  Even though the Lion Camp feels to me a bit too much like a bunch of hippies experimenting with a new way of living, Auel does a nice job portraying how such a group might have lived in those times, from day-to-day life to their festivities.  Highlights include Crozie's gambling games, her teaching Ayla how to make white leather, and the costumes and gift giving at Ayla's induction ceremony.

Also, though their characterization never reaches the heights of Brun, Iza, or Creb, Auel does a nice job giving the Lion Camp members distinct personalities.  We learn just about everyone's backstory, from Wymez's travels to the tragedy that brought Fralie, Frebec, and Crozie to the Lion Camp.  Only Manuv and his hearth are too pleasant and well adjusted to receive much character development.         

3.  Wolf.  I didn't say much about the animals last time, but though I hate the whole "Ayla is magical because she controls animals" aspect of the series, I do like the animals themselves.  Whinney and Racer, her son, are pretty delightful, and Wolf is a nice addition to the four-legged family.

4.  Jondalar's Pain.  In many respects, Jondalar's possessiveness of Ayla is unearned.  But darned if I don't feel for him during all those chapters where he has to listen to Ayla in bed with Ranec.  Most of us know what it is like to love someone and feel profoundly jealous when he or she is with someone else.  Auel describes Jondalar's suffering in vivid, heart-hurting detail.

The Bad

1.  Ayla's First Night Mishandled.  Ayla's first night with Ranec is one of the most dissected sections in the Earth's Children series.  People have debated endlessly whether Ayla really thought that Ranec was giving her the "signal" after being told that the Others did not compel women to have sex.  I can see both sides.  On the one hand, you could argue that the few months Ayla spent with Jondalar and the Mamutoi were not enough to offset nine years of ingrained Clan teachings.  Sure, the Others could claim that no woman was forced to have sex, but that did not mean the message sank in.  On the other hand, there were many hints that Ranec was attracted to Ayla, and Ayla to Ranec, long before the infamous night.  Their previous interactions even included moments where Ayla semi-sort of refused Ranec -- not quite the behavior of someone who feels compelled to give into a man's desires.

Regardless, I think the night and its after effects were badly handled, but not for the usual reasons.  That Ayla felt compelled to have sex is just sort of glossed over.  Mamut tells her "no one can ever command you" and then moves on.  Yet you would think that such an admission would prompt more than just a nod from a society that respects and honors women.  You would think their reaction would be more along the lines of: "Wait, they made you do what?"  In fairness, I don't think any of the Mamutoi except Mamut learn the exact reason Ayla went with Ranec.  To the rest of the Lion Camp, Ayla had simply drunk a little too much "bouza" and had chosen another partner for the night.  But you would think that even Mamut, who lived with the Clan, would more strongly condemn their gender practices, or at least describe them as "unfortunate."  Instead, he remarks upon how "appealing" it was to have a woman always serving his needs, as if she had a choice!

Also, it's strange that Auel writes Ayla as being so blase about the experience of submitting to another man's desires.  After her experience with Broud, why wasn't Ayla more upset?  Why didn't she think: "I thought that the Others were different.  I thought I wouldn't be forced to do anything here."  It's again as if Ayla -- and Auel -- wants to isolate the forced sex and casual abuse as things that just came from Broud, as opposed to widespread norms in Clan society.  Since one major theme in this novel is The Clan Are Humans Too, it would certainly complicate things if the Others had to also account for the Clan's ingrained misogyny.                

2.  Where Everyone Acts Like a Complete Imbecile.  I will give Auel credit for at least giving Jondalar complex reasons for not confessing his feelings to Ayla.  He feels that his feelings are too powerful and unnatural, and they had led to his exile in the past.  He thinks that Ayla might be better off with someone more in control and more willing to accept her Clan past and her mixed son.  So yes, I can understand why Jondalar would not simply break down and confess his feelings, even if it is a stretch that he would keep them to himself for an entire winter.

What I can't understand is why Ayla never asks him what is wrong, or never seems to notice Jondalar's distress, despite her supposed "heightened senses" from living with the Clan.  But what is really unforgivable is that the Lion Camp never intervenes.  Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- can see how miserable Ayla and Jondalar are.  In both the previous novel and this one, we are told that the Mamutoi are a blunt-spoken people who do not shy away from broaching uncomfortable subject matter.  Moreover, you would think that the Lion Camp would want to make their guest and their newest member comfortable, which meant resolving their differences.  Instead, everyone just talks about it behind their backs, but decides that it is better not to intervene so that Ayla, Jondalar, and Ranec can work out their "destinies."  Not even honest Rydag, I-don't-give-a-shit Frebec, or Deegie, Ayla's supposed best friend.  As many have pointed out, had any one of them spoken up, the initial dispute over Ayla's night with Ranec would have been settled within an hour.  It might not have resolved the underlying disputes, but at least Ayla and Jondalar would be able to talk about them honestly instead of being tortured by the other's behavior.

3.  Stereotypes Ahoy!  It is easy to let the Love Triangle From Hell overwhelm everything -- not just what is good about The Mammoth Hunters, but also what else is bad about the novel.  One of the other issues I have is its abundance of stereotypical characters.  There is jolly giant, Talut (rhymes with galoot!); Mamut, the prototypical wise and enigmatic shaman; and smooth-talking, sexy Ranec.

Despite the fact that Mamut is portrayed as wise, all-knowing, and gentle, he is a problematic character.  Besides finding the appeal in letting a Clan woman serve him, he also keeps his Clan life a secret until Ayla comes.  As many have noted, that means Mamut could have taught the Lion Camp years ago that Rydag and the Clan were human.  But why have their trusted shaman do it when he could leave it to a stranger?

Meanwhile, Auel tries very hard to make Ranec the inverse of all the negative black stereotypes.  Ranec isn't the one who sticks out negatively.  Everyone thinks that he is a beautiful specimen of a man, especially his color.  At the same time, he is also smooth and easy going, with a strong sex drive.  Hmm, well... A for effort?      

But the worst stereotyping may be of Rydag, the "magical cripple."  Six years old and mute due to inheriting the Clan's inability to verbalize, Rydag also has a fatal heart ailment.  He is a sweet character, but he is introduced solely to serve as a lesson and then to die.  Rydag is always kind and patient, never resentful or rebellious, and he often speaks words of wisdom (like No. 6 on this list).  He is more like a small, incredibly wise adult than a child.  Knowing that Auel introduced him in order to kill him off, I had trouble getting attached to Rydag, and did not cry when his end finally came, though I'm sure I was in the minority.      

4.  Lingering Sexism in Utopia.  Auel takes great pains to present Mamutoi society as egalitarian.  The leaders are a headman and a headwoman.  Women are allowed to hunt.  Women bring the hearth and the hearth name.  Women are negotiators and craftsmen.  Yet some familiar sexism still peeps through.  Although Talut's sister Tulie is a co-leader, Talut seems to be the one people turn to, and it is from his hearth that the Lion Camp gets its name.  (Which doesn't make sense.  Nezzie, Talut's mate, is the younger sister of Wymez, keeper of the Fox Hearth.  If Nezzie brought the hearth, shouldn't Talut's hearth also be the Fox Hearth?  Or Wymez's hearth the Lion Hearth?  Wouldn't it have just been easier to make Tulie's hearth the Lion Hearth?)

Meanwhile, Nezzie admits to Ayla that while Talut likes to sleep around at Summer Meetings, she doesn't think he'd like it if she did it.  And Jondalar's possessiveness is seen as normal, if not necessarily desirable.  Then there is the bride price, which dehumanizes women in a way, making them prizes to be won rather than equals entering into a hearth.

5.  Losing Her Humanity.  Despite her profoundly stupid behavior during the Love Triangle, Ayla's near divinity is driven to new heights.  Not only is she lauded for controlling animals, but she is constantly built up by Mamut as having a great "destiny" and purpose.  In fact, we can thank Mamut for building Ayla up to heights that she would never reach in the later books, even if the writing were better.

Other Points Worth Mentioning

1.  Ayla and Jondalar Invent Everything.  There was some of that in the last novel, but The Mammoth Hunters really runs with this thread.

2.  Yes, the Sex Scenes Are Still There.  Read the Ayla and Ranec scene if you want a good laugh.  Or cry.

3.  Ayla Still Does Not Know How to Name Things.  For such a creative, inventive person, one would think she could come up with a better name than Wolf.  But I guess every Mary Sue needs one flaw.

Conclusion

There is much to recommend about The Mammoth Hunters.  It is probably my second-favorite book of the Earth's Children series, though that isn't saying much.  If you have a hunger for knowing how ancient societies lived and can ignore the Love Triangle, you will find a lot of good material about tools, weapons, clothing, and burial conventions.  Despite the stereotypes, the character interactions are still enjoyable to read and are mostly believable.  It is the Love Triangle that weighs The Mammoth Hunters down the most, turning a decent novel into borderline trash.  However, I have to confess that it is also the Love Triangle that also keeps bringing me back.  There's just something about it that compels me to read with one hand covering my eyes.


Next Week:  The Plains of Passage, where Jondalar (with Ayla) crosses the Continent.  Again.

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Let Me Entertain You: A Chapter of My Novel

Just a note: I will be going out of town for a few days, so I probably won't have the next Earth's Children critique up until Sunday at the earliest.  Until then, I thought perhaps there might be some out there *sound of crickets* who would be interested in reading a chapter of my own novel.  I recently learned that the publishing person I sent it to has not read it yet, which is frustrating but not surprising, since people in that industry are so busy.  Hopefully she will get to it soon, and in the meantime, I would love any feedback on what I've posted -- real feedback, not spam feedback, please.  You can either post below or click on the About Me: Wild Blogger link and hit Email.

As I mentioned before, the novel is set in 1860s Britain, and is very much in the "country house" genre.  However, I think there is more to it than massive skirts and horse-drawn carriages.

**********************

Mount Edgecumbe House, taken by Philip Halling 

Isabella Warpole’s funeral was unlike any other in recent memory.

Thousands of mourners lined both sides of the procession route, as if waiting for royalty to pass.  The entire town of Upper Rising shut down.  All shop windows were dark as the black hearse made its way down the narrow high street, yards of crepe raining down from overhead.  There was hardly a person in attendance not wearing a black dress, or an arm band, or a band of crepe on his hat.  Together, they watched six black horses trot past, pulling the hearse.  Next came the Warpole carriage, followed closely by the St. John carriage.  Then came a long line of empty carriages as far as the eye could see, each representing a family that could not attend, but wanted to pay their respects.

The procession wound its way through the town, then made its way to the next town, then the next.  Everywhere, the reactions were the same, the pain just as fresh.  Hours must have passed before the hearse finally returned to the parish church for the ceremony.  By the time the dead woman’s coffin was ushered away to the family vault, there was not a dry eye in the church.  Elizabeth Brimley had no doubt that the entire funeral was a magnificent affair.

If only she could have seen it.         

Women did not attend funerals.  At least, not women of her class.  Not even when her husband was the one presiding over the ceremony and the dead woman was her sister.  Elizabeth had considered fighting this unspoken edict, but in the end gave in, fearing that the still-fresh grief from Bella’s death would cause her to break down.  So instead, she sat and prayed in a darkened room with her daughters, her nieces and young nephews, and her other sisters. 

Yet as she heard about the funeral in bits and pieces from lower class women who attended, Elizabeth regretted her decision.  Those women had loved Bella, too, but no one thought that they were too frail to attend a funeral.  Now Elizabeth felt as though they had shared something intimate with her sister, whilst she remained on the outside.  As she made her way from house to house as part of her parish rounds, Elizabeth heard story after story about Bella.  How she had nursed one family’s children back to health from influenza.  How she gave another family bread and clothing for every month that the father was in prison.  How she raised money to mend the roofs of an entire neighborhood.  Elizabeth knew that her husband, Reverend Henry Brimley, who was also out making rounds, was hearing similar stories. 

Women broke down, and sometimes men.  Their voices quavering, they spoke of “Mrs. Warpole’s” kindness and of the Warpole family in reverent terms.  They cried out that it wasn’t fair -- Mrs. Warpole had been so hale just two months ago.  They needed comforting and Elizabeth tried to provide it.  She held their hands and uttered as many kind words as she knew.  But inside, she felt dizzy and tired.  How could she comfort them when she wanted to cry herself?  When every corner she turned, she still expected to see Bella?

Elizabeth managed to maintain her composure, but she was never so happy when she returned to the parsonage.  As she crossed the threshold, she reflected that the house had seen better days a long time ago.  The roof over her bedroom leaked.  The grates remained black and gritty even after the maid’s best efforts to clean them.  The furniture was faded, and carefully placed pillows could not hide how threadbare it was. 

Of course, “carefully placed” were not words commonly associated with the Brimley household.  The girls often tossed pillows into a heap when they sat down to do their sewing.  Arthur left his school cap and jacket on a chair without remembering to pick them up again.  Henry was always losing things in his study, filled as it was with tall, disjointed stacks of books and papers.  Because the Brimleys employed just one maid, the Brimley women took it upon themselves to help with the tidying.  However, on the best of days, charity work, parish work, forgetfulness, and -- Elizabeth admitted -- laziness prevented them from doing a thorough job.  On the worst of days, the house looked as though it had been hit by a hurricane.  Such as now.

Elizabeth made her way up to the first floor.  She called out to her children and felt a pinprick of concern when no one answered.  She knew that her older daughter Meg was ill, but had hoped that it was not so serious that her youngest, Charlotte, needed to nurse her every minute.  Elizabeth was somewhat relieved when, moments later, she found both girls in the sitting room next to their bedroom.  If Meg were well enough to be in the sitting room, she could not be too ill.  Yet Elizabeth noted that Meg still did not look well.  Her feet were up on the sofa and her head was back against pillows.  Blonde with milky, freckled skin, like her father, she looked even paler than usual.  At seventeen, Meg had always been on the plumper side, but, since Bella’s death, she was losing weight at an alarming rate.  Sitting beside her in a chair, fifteen-year-old Charlotte tried to coax her to take a sip of gruel from a bowl.  Charlotte was still plump, with Elizabeth’s brown hair and eyes, but she looked tired and frail as well.  Arthur was with them, too, sitting in a chair beside Meg’s feet.  His normally laughing brown eyes were solemn, and he echoed Charlotte’s pleas that Meg “eat a little something.”  Arthur would be the first to know how much Meg’s poor appetite had harmed her health.  Elizabeth knew that he wanted to call a doctor, but she did not want to think about doctors right now, or maybe ever again.

“Meg, darling,” she said, keeping her tone soothing and calm.  “How good to see you up at last.  Do have a little gruel -- it will make you feel better.”  She moved further into the narrow room and leaned over to stroke Meg’s hair.  Meg’s lids were so swollen from crying that Elizabeth had trouble seeing her blue eyes.  She tried not to show any alarm.

“She ate about five spoonfuls, mamma,” Charlotte said helpfully, as though Meg had consumed an entire hindquarter of mutton.  Yet after days of Meg’s dishes returning untouched, she might as well have done.  Elizabeth was encouraged by her daughter’s small improvements.  If the family kept nudging her to eat more, bit by bit, she would return to full health.  “That is excellent news, my dear,” she said warmly.  “Papa will be so pleased to hear it.”  Meg was Henry’s particular favorite, and her break down left him very anxious, though few could tell from his quiet demeanor.  Meg managed a faint, shaky smile at Elizabeth’s words.

“And we know that our girl can eat a few more,” said Arthur affectionately, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze.  “Can’t you, Meg?”  Meg’s eyes turned to him, and her smile reappeared.  Then it slid away, and she struggled to speak. 

“Mamma… when you were out…”  Her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. 

“Shhh, darling, if it’s too much --”

But Meg was insistent.  She sat up a little straighter, her eyes focused on Elizabeth’s face.  “Aunt Bella.  Did they talk… about…?”  Elizabeth stroked her hair and smoothed the blanket that was over her. 

“Yes, they spoke of your aunt Warpole.  They were all very kind.”

Meg’s eyes remained locked on hers.  “But did they… did they talk about…?”

Suddenly Elizabeth knew what she meant.  She had hoped her children didn’t know about that.  “They had nothing but kind words,” she said firmly. 

Meg visibly relaxed and sank back against the pillows.  Elizabeth wished that she could stay and tend to her, giving Charlotte a chance to rest.  But there was one more visit to make, one that she had been half-dreading all day.

“Are you still going to visit uncle Warpole, mamma?” Charlotte asked in a low voice.

“Yes, darling, I must.  Today is the last day William and Charles will be at home before they return to school.  I wanted to wish them off.  Arthur, perhaps you’d like to join me?”

“I should stay with Meg,” said Arthur, perhaps a little too quickly.  “Charlotte has been with her all day, and I just came home…”  His voice faded, as if he knew that his last words would displease Elizabeth. 

They did.  Elizabeth knew that Arthur had left shortly before she did that morning, not long after Henry.  She did not want to ask where he had been.  She already knew, but if she learnt it directly from Arthur, she feared losing control and ordering him out of the house.

“Do let him stay, mamma,” Charlotte urged her.  “Meg has been in such better spirits since he came in.  Don’t make him sit and force smiles and make conversation with Isabella.”

“Now Charlotte, show some sympathy for your cousin,” Elizabeth said severely.  “She did just lose her mother, after all.”

“I know.  I’m sorry,” Charlotte responded, her cheeks flushing.  “But she’s always been so unpleasant, and even now, she doesn’t act the way you’d think she would --”

“Charlotte,” Elizabeth said with an air of finality.  Her younger daughter fell silent.  Elizabeth turned to Arthur.  “Are you sure, Arthur?  I would think William and Charles would appreciate you coming to say goodbye.”

Arthur sat up straight in his chair, clutching the arms tightly.  His face turned a shade paler.  “They might appreciate you coming to see them… but I don’t think they want to see me.  I think… that I might be the last person they wish to see.”

Elizabeth doubted that, but knew that he was right to be wary.  Still, Arthur could not avoid the Warpoles forever.  Before Elizabeth could try to persuade him, she heard a loud knock on the front door, signaling that the Warpole carriage had arrived.


Read the next excerpt here.

Note that use of the photograph above does not mean Philip Halling endorses this work.  This work has been registered and may not be reproduced in any form without my express permission.