The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river. It didn’t occur to her to look back. Nothing in her experience ever gave her reason to doubt the shelter and those within it would be there when she returned.
She splashed into the river and felt rocks and sand shift under her feet as the shore fell off sharply. She dived into the cold water and came up sputtering, then reached out with sure strokes for the steep opposite bank. She had learned to swim before she learned to walk and, at five, was at ease in the water. Swimming was often the only way a river could be crossed.
The girl played for a while, swimming back and forth, then let the current float her downstream. Where the river widened and bubbled over rocks, she stood up and waded to shore, then walked back to the beach and began sorting pebbles. She had just put a stone on top of a pile of especially pretty ones when the earth began to tremble.
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel is the first book in the Earth’s Children series and was published in 1980, two years before I was born. I must have read the first four books in the series sometime between 1990 (when the fourth, Plains of Passage was published) and 1995, because only the last two books in the series appear on the record I started keeping at thirteen. And yet, my copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear is battered and heavily creased, so I must’ve read it a few times before I started recording my reading. I took the picture below before I started re-reading my original copy. It’s even more messed up now, in that way that well-thumbed and well-loved books are:
It’s a dense book, almost 500 pages, and because the subject matter is both academic and mature, it’s strange to think of my child self reading it. I can’t imagine any of the kids I know who are around that age reading this book, but I can recall reading and loving these books, taking the things I read in stride, but possibly not understanding quite a bit of it. My precociousness when it comes to reading is what makes me more open-minded about kids reading outside their age range, I imagine, because I don’t think I was damaged by the experience of reading this book so young.
But I’m absolutely positive I was influenced by it, even the parts I didn’t fully understand or absorb. The same kid who loved reading about how the siblings set up their new home in The Boxcar Children consumed the highly detailed story of how a traveling group of Neanderthals adopted Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon girl, and made a new cave their home. This same kid became a woman who loved the world-building of excellent fantasy novels like The Song of Ice and Fire books.
The series is categorized as historical fiction, but it seems to me that it would be more appropriately labeled speculative fiction, as it contains some of the same elements. I think people think of a future setting or sci-fi or fantasy tropes when they think of speculative fiction and Auel has instead speculated on the lives of our ancestors. With each book, she took the “known” information and relevant theories of the time and wove this research into a long, engrossing tale of how imagined characters would live during a period of significant advancement for the human species.
There was a significantly longer gap in publication with each book (two years between the first two, three for the next book, then five for the fourth). Our understanding of our early ancestors changed deeply over the ten-year period that the first four books were published. It took twelve years for the fifth book to be released, which represents another giant leap in what archaeologists and anthropologists understood about people and the Earth during the time Auel was writing about. My own life also made a significant leap. I was eight when the fourth book was published in 1990 and when I finally read The Shelters of Stone in 2003 (over a year after it was published), I was 21 years old. I had changed radically, but not so much that I didn’t feel the need to know what happened to Ayla and Jondalar, the man she heals and falls in love with in the second book, The Valley of Horses. When the last book of the series, The Land of the Painted Caves, was published nine (more) years later, in 2011, I had been living in New Orleans for four years and my life once again looked very different. I have literally grown up with these books. When I read The Land of the Painted Caves in 2011, I had just written one of my first bragging on posts and would, a few days after finishing it, change the name of my blog.
Re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear this month (and it took me most of the month: you can see the book in two of the photos in this collage from my writers’ retreat, which took place at the beginning of the month) was almost akin to time travel. I felt like the pre-teen version of myself was cuddled against me, reading along from under my arm. I often felt like asking her, “Didn’t it scare you, the way that Ayla loses her family and her people and is on her own?” and “What did you think about all of the rigid rules that Clan women had to follow?” I wondered what she made of the occasions when Ayla is raped, in a way that is clearly rape, but depicted as happening in a social structure without a concept for sex without consent. I knew that those scenes (relatively few, near the latter half of the book and not especially graphic after the first time) stuck with me as something that I remembered when I thought of the book. While it’s an important plot point and it says a lot about the social norms of the people that are depicted in the book, far more words and pages are devoted to details about the plant and animal life that the clan people harvest for medicine and food.
While there is far more sex (almost exclusively romantic and consensual) in the rest of the series (particularly the third book), this would have been one of the first times I would’ve read about sex. I would’ve read the third book, the most romance novel-ish of the series up till that point, around the same time I read my first actual romance novel, clandestinely from my mother’s bookshelf (I’ll re-read that too, later this year).
I thought I would find The Clan of the Cave Bear really boring (some of the later books are a bit), the writing banal and bland, but that wasn’t the case at all. I was engrossed from the first page, sucked back into this world that captured my imagination so vividly so early in my life as a reader (before I knew I wanted to be a writer, in fact). I suspect, having re-read it now at age 32, that I owe a lot of my interest in archaeology and anthropology (I almost minored in college) to this series. Not only that, but a lot of my feminist philosophy and social politics probably began forming while I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear as a young girl. I found myself referencing the book in numerous conversations as I was re-reading it, which also helped me realize how incredibly influential the book was to me.
Reading The Clan of the Cave Bear so young might’ve most influenced what I would love to read for the rest of my life. I could see that the Earth’s Children is a series that required as much complex world-building as George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire books (and perhaps waiting for the last two EC books prepared me for my wait for The Winds of Winter now). Moreover, I enjoyed that total immersion in a new world that the best fantasy series provide. I could see in Ayla some of what I later loved about Katniss in The Hunger Games, or Ellie Linton from the Tomorrow books. Perhaps because I had just finished reading Ronlyn Domingue’s The Chronicle of Secret Riven for review, I found parallels between the Utopian society depicted in that speculative fiction and the early socialism and mysticism depicted in Auel’s historical/speculative fiction series.
Most of all, what I felt re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear was a desire to re-read the rest of the books in the Earth’s Children series, to delve once more into The Song of Ice and Fire books, and The Hunger Games, the Tomorrow books and Harry Potter. I wanted to stay immersed in a fictional world that felt real and vital, that made me think and made me care deeply for the characters. The Earth’s Children series are the only books Jean M. Auel is known to have published, but I’m glad to say that The Clan of the Cave Bear has stood the test of time for me.