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.


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.

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