Jean M. Auel
Crown Publishers, 1990. 760 pgs.
Auel’s saga of Ayla, the prehistoric woman of late Pleistocene Era Europe, is a part of my prehistory. I discovered Ayla’s childhood story, The Clan of the Cavebear, when I was a college freshman. I read, The Valley of Horses, where Ayla meets the love of her life, Jondalar, when I was in graduate school. The third book, The Mammoth Hunters, was read last year. I spotted The Plains of Passage just the other week. Its highly colored cover, depicting Ayla’s hunky Jondalar, a bunch of wild animals and a glacier background, called out to me. In many ways, Ayla was like a girl I knew in high school, bumped into from time to time, and then lost track of. What ever happened to that nice cave couple, Ayla and Jondalar, after all? I had to find out.
Auel’s first two books were great. Clan of the Cave Bear presented a completely original story that captivated. A child of the despised “others” is found by people of the Clan (Neanderthal) and adopted. She never fits in, but learns the ways of being a medicine woman from her adopted mom. Auel researches all her books intensely so I trust the depiction of cave culture is the best that can be possible done, from the evidence that is left. Ayla grows up, big and ugly (of course you know she is actually gorgeous), and tries her best to fit in with Neanderthal ways. Finally, she is driven off, not before giving birth to a child of “mixed spirits” from repeated rapes from the son of the Clan leader. Evidently, Clan women were trained to “assume the position” when men of the Clan give a secret hand symbol (I always wanted to know what that was). Thank heavens times have changed. She is forced to leave her little son Durk behind, a sorrow that is referred to throughout the series. The second book, The Valley of Horses, describes Ayla’s life alone in a valley, her discovery that she can domesticate animals including some friendly horses and, hello, a prehistoric cave lion. At this point, I have some serious doubts about plot plausibility, but hey, it’s a good story. Two hunters wander by, the adorable cave lion kills one and would have offed the other one — Jondalar — but Ayla intervenes with her precious pet just in time. The rest of the book is Ayla’s slow realization that she is not a deformed and hideous aberration of a Neanderthal, but that she is actually a gorgeous Cro-Magnon, just like her new boyfriend. Lots of hot cave sex follows.
Auel’s strength lies in her wonderful depiction of the natural world and what life might have been like during the Ice Age. Hunting for food, making stuff from simple tools, and techniques for surviving in the wild are given pages and pages of coverage. If you like this stuff (what can I say, years of camping and Girl Scouting experience here) you will revel in these books. Auel runs into trouble when she gets Ayla and Jondalar mixed up with other folks. First of all, I guess only Ayla is brilliant enough to know that animals can be domesticated and useful so every time the couple wander into other cave communities with their four-legged friends (two horses and eventually, a tame wolf) they are feared as spirits from the other world. This gets old. Second, Cro-Magnons hate, despise, and loathe “Flatheads” and innocent and honest Ayla just can’t keep her mouth shut about her funny accent and weird life story. This gives boyfriend Jondalar, whom we learn is quite famous for his studly capabilities, heart burn, because secretly he is a conformist middle class yuppie. Auel’s third book, The Mammoth Hunters, is all about drivel like this. Boring, Boring, Boring. You can skip it.
Now to the story at hand. The Plains of Passage is about Ayla and Jondalar’s travels from the community of Mammoth Hunters near the Black Sea, all the way across Europe, to Jondalar’s family community– the Zelandonii, in southern France. Auel is back in top form with pages and pages of nature. What would you like to know about prehistoric life?? — berries, flint tools, glacial ice (did you know it cuts up horses’ hooves?), mammoth mating habits, plants that can put you to sleep while Ayla sets your broken leg, plants that are good to smear on yourself to drive away gnats, plants that make good tea for after shagging Jondalar in a hot spring, how to bend wood over fire to make a boat frame, how to use a boat to slide down the edge of a glacier, how to make a horse stand on the side of your tent so it doesn’t blow over, about a zillion facts about the Danube River, how to make sunglasses out of wood so you don’t go blind while crossing a glacier and on and on and on. It’s engaging, absorbing and quite, quite long. I will admit skipping a paragraph or two when a description of a useful prehistoric mushroom got a bit intense even for me. Along with the nature narrative, Ayla and Jondalar have exciting encounters with a variety of people and social groups, but luckily for us, Auel never lets them settle for too long so we don’t have to get embroiled in any prehistoric soap operas, as in the third book. Last, the characters of Ayla and Jondalar have matured and settled in nicely. Yes, it is annoying that they are just so damn gorgeous and every single sex session is mind-blowingly wonderful. A note of caution: sex in Auel’s books is repetitive, explicit and turgidly phrased with lots of throbbing manhoods. Wouldn’t you think that back in the Pleistocene there would have been at least a few missing fingers or burned faces and that people might be a little too cold, hungry and exhausted to be thinking about sex all the time? Additionally, Ayla is a little too brilliant — not just being the only one of her kind to domesticate animals, but hunting with her sling, learning to create a needle that can pull thread — I expected her to discover sulfa drugs and open heart surgery at any moment.
These are actually petty criticisms. There was something wonderfully stirring in The Plains of Passage, something I can’t quite explain. The age old theme of a journey into the unknown, the call to return to your home place, the struggle of survival. I did love this book. I think I’m going to have to give Auel’s fifth book a try. I’ve just got to find out what happens to that wolf when Ayla and Jondalar settle down in their new home….