Thursday, June 12, 2014

clan of the cave bears: a review

If I wasn't such a stickler for consistency I would have titled this post 'a dying breed.' Of course I am referring to the cave dwellers in Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, but I'm also referring to so much more. I first read this book when I was 14 or 15. It's supposedly become a classic. I'm not sure why. 

I remember being thrilled when I read this book the first time, though I'm guessing now that the thrill was all in the sneaking. I doubt I ever asked permission to read it, but given that it wasn't available in the school library and I'd heard it had some frank sex in it, I was pretty sure it was high on the 'garbage in, garbage out' scale my parents used to persuade us to make edifying choices. It's likely the only book I ever smuggled around like contraband. I don't think my parents ever banned a book I wanted to read, but I'm pretty sure if I had actually asked I would have heard was that it was my choice but ... "GIGO." My updated standard is 'good writers read good writing.' It still doesn't qualify.

For those who don't already know, The Clan of the Cave Bear is set in some fairly undefined mid-world land between an inland sea and a mountain range. I suppose someone with more interest and more knowledge of geography would be able to place it somewhere in Asia Minor. The titular 'Clan' are Neanderthals, or something like that, and the female protagonist Ayla is from a newer human group called 'Others' (shades of colonization litter the book). Most interpretations suggest she's Cro Magnon, but I've never seen pictures of a blue-eyed blonde Cro Magnon. I'm no anthropologist though and if labels were important, the author likely would have used them. The story opens with an earthquake that displaces 5 year old Ayla, she's rescued by the cave people's medicine woman, is adopted into the small clan, learns to gather, heal, hunt, subsis and survive and grows up being 'Other' with all the pain and loneliness and opportunity that entails.  

There are some really interesting details that are believably presented as a possible reality of how things were back in the day - a variety of animals that we no longer know, a way of life our trendy hipster 'paleo' eating friends can't even imagine. Auel does a great job of creating that world. A world in which other species have already been lost, are continually being lost, and in which a way of life and a life view are constantly under silent threat. Extinction is a theme, not so much as a result of proto-human activity but as a result of geologic change. It's still interesting though to read about moose 18 feet tall and beavers the size of modern hogs. The book reads as though it's well researched, although unlike modern authors Auel doesn't bother with a comprehensive acknowledgement section to let us know about that research. 

As in the days of yore when I wielded my imaginary power in a classroom, I have to pause here for a digression:

The portrayal of sex in the book made me queasy. I love a good sex scene, but these were not good sex scenes. What titillated my adolescent self repulsed me as an adult. I'm sure that Auel isn't far off in her presentation of sex among the Neanderthals being as free and natural as taking care of any of their other physical needs. That's not the problem. There is only one scene in the book that is clearly written to be read as a sexual assault, but almost the entire representation of sex in the story is repugnant to me. Women's lack of agency doesn't mean it's not rape. Yes, the Clan women can try to entice men; they are taught by their mothers what subtle movements, looks and gestures encourage a man's physical attention, but they can't ask for what they want any more than they can say no when any male - mate or otherwise - makes the gesture to 'assume the position' and 'relieves his needs.' That may be accurate, but presenting it as though the women enjoyed it as a stretch. If sex was as natural as any other need, why would women be denied access to their own pleasure? They were free to eat, defecate, rest. If sex is 'natural' isn't it natural for all? Even in 1980, when the book was published, this should have been problematic. Free sexual expression as natural as breathing or eating is probably appropriate to the story & healthier than some of our repressive practices. A man gesturing at any woman and her unflinching assuming of the position- that's cultural, not natural. That's a breed worth dying out, worth killing off, that breed that thinks a woman's duty is to please a man. And please, let's not pretend they're gone.

But this isn't an anti-rape culture diatribe, it's a book review.

I can't really say I enjoyed re-reading this book. Auel's writing style is over-wraught and stilted. She tries too hard to say too much and suffers from thesaurusitis when she isn't being repetitive. It's just not good writing. It is, however, good story telling if you can get past the first 100 pages. The first third of the book took me almost two weeks to read; the remainder took three days. At some point, the story gained momentum, the character became ones I could give a damn about, and I found myself reading whenever & wherever I could. Whether this had anything to do with my coinciding stomach flu or not, I can't really say. Seems likely though. 

I suppose I begrudgingly recommend this book, not because it's amazing but because it's one of those cultural references people make that it's worth being familiar with (one could say the same thing about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and I couldn't get ten pages into it). The descriptions of flora and fauna in the prehistoric era are interesting, as are the theories of why Neanderthals died out. If that's your interest though, I'm sure there are great anthropological tomes that would be more satisfying.  

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