The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

(Cover picture courtesy of Bookworld.)

This novel of awesome beauty and power is a moving saga about people, relationships, and the boundaries of love.  Through Jean M. Auel’s magnificent storytelling we are taken back to the dawn of modern humans, and with a girl named Ayla we are swept up in the harsh and beautiful Ice Age world they shared with the ones who called themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear.

A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind.  To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly—she is one of the Others, those who have moved intot their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them.

Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her.  But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority.  He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.

It’s often difficult to sum up one’s feelings for a book in one sentence, but I’ll try:

The Clan of the Cave Bear is a decent enough book that tried too hard to jump into the category of ‘epic novel’.

What I mean by that is that I enjoyed learning about a wildly different time in history than I’m accustomed to, but some of Jean M. Auel’s writing was distracting.  The whole purpose of her Earth’s Children series is tell the story of humankind from its earliest days when the Neanderthals began to die out or breed with Cro-Magnons, modern humans.  The main character, Ayla, is adopted into the Neanderthal Clan after being orphaned in an earthquake, creating the perfect situation to show readers the decline of Neanderthals and the rise of modern man.

In The Clan of the Cave Bear we get marvelous insight into the culture and day to day activities of our ancestors, which makes for a fascinating historical novel.  However, sometimes Auel veers into what I call Professor Mode and starts explaining things instead of showing them from the characters’ points of view and letting the reader figure things out.  Here is one such passage:

“Wooden bowls were used in similar ways.  Rib bones were stirrers, large flat pelvic bones were plate and platters along with thin sections of logs.  Birch-bark glued together with balsam gum, some reinforced with a well-placed knot of sinew, were folded into shapes for many uses.” (Pg. 81)

I don’t know about you, but that sounds a heck of a lot like my fourth-grade history textbook’s description of how the parts of buffalo were used.  In historical fiction there is a fine line between giving enough information so your readers can understand what the story is about and giving a lecture.  There are times when Jean M. Auel shows us what life in the Clan is like, but there are others similar to the above passage that lecture us.

With that said, for the most part I enjoyed The Clan of the Cave Bear.  It’s well written and although Ayla is an interesting character, the book is more about the changing times than the characters.  Fair enough; it comes close to an ‘epic saga’, but I don’t think it ever really achieves that.  But what it does accomplish quite well is to show why the Neanderthals as a separate species died out: they could not change.  Their culture and traditions were so ingrained that they resisted change; their brains were larger but not as readily adaptable as the brains of our ancestors.  And for that alone, I’ll be continuing the Earth’s Children® series.  (Yes, Ms. Auel actually trademarked the name of her series.)

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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