Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children is, without a doubt, the very best series of episodic novels about a cave-girl-cum-animal-charmer’s travels through the time just before the world’s final glacial period—winning friends, pettin’ big kitties, and maybe, just maybe, finding love along the way. But you haven’t read them yet. Hey, I know how it goes. Literature is daunting! Some of these paperbacks are up to 600 pages long! That’s like reading six million Diet Coke can nutrition information panels, or 375,000 of those instructional cartoons that come inside the tampon box. Before you invest that kind of time, you might want to know a few things. You might have some questions you can only entrust to a parent, teacher, or friend.
I am here to be that parent, teacher, friend, (lover, if you want it, not saying you do). I will answer the questions you have about the heroine Ayla’s journey—across continents—across space and time—across YOUR HEART. Bring it, hypothetical reader.
1. So, she’s a cave girl?
Ahaha. Oh you. I pet your pretty braids in ironic wistfulness for a time when I was so innocent. One does not merely refer to Ayla as a “cave girl.” Does one call toast “burn bread”? Does one refer to a joyous bout of lovemaking as “sideways jiggling”?
True, she is a girl. Yes, she dwells mostly in caves. But Ayla transcends race, gender, and beautiful blonde hair color. She is, as you will find throughout the worldview-altering reading experience that is this series, ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE.
There’s no such thing as “topless” yet.
But the first thing you have to know is that these books take place during a magical time when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals shared the earth. When the first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, opens, Ayla is a small Neanderthal child who has been adopted by a clan of Cro-Magnons. She is tall, beautiful, verbose, and blonde. They are muscular, squat, silent beings who communicate via a type of sign language and a bank of shared “memories.” These Cro-Magnons, the “Clan” referred to in the book’s title, have a rigid set of gender roles, including rules against women touching weapons, hunting, and speaking to men without being acknowledged. Ayla’s role in this strange new tribe is to be like “fuck this shit” and kick over every one of their closely-held cultural beliefs, god bless her. You’d think they would appreciate her bringing them into the Neanderthal light, but they’re quite set in their ways. They’re late-Victorian, Ayla is a jazz baby. Hijinks ensue.
2. It’s kind of rapey, isn’t it?
Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes, TOTALLY. One of the little foibles of The Clan is that any man can “take” any woman at any time simply by making “the signal” at her.
We are all sensitive people. With so much to giiiiiive.
In the first book, Ayla squares off against Broud, the clan leader’s son. He hates her, cause he’s jealous, see? Jealous that she’s allowed to break the clan’s taboo and hunt, jealous that she never seems to need conditioner, jealous that she can reach things on the highest shelves—and he takes it out on her in the worst way possible.
If this movie was set in the 80s, Broud would exclusively wear tailored pinstriped suits, drive a Lamborghini with an ovary-rattling sound system, and have lots of Nagel-esque cave paintings on his cave walls.
3. But there’s also a lot of weird sex?
As the series progresses, so do the sexual attitudes. Jean-M (her rap name) takes Ayla from a repressive male-dominated society (Book One) to being initiated into “The Gift of Pleasures”(Book Two) to female-dominated Earth-Mother cultures where women rule equally with men (Book 3-6.) Along the way, she encounters a “twisted” lesbian cave-lady society where peen-sex has been outlawed, “Mother Festivals” where everybody honors their higher power with booze-and-drug-fueled orgies, and “Doni-women” who paint the bottoms of their feet red and initiate teenaged boys into the arts of looo-ooove so they’ll be better lays later in life. Also there’s some ethnically-questionable stuff when she meets Ranec, a black guy who almost steals her from her true love, Jondalar. Cave men! They’re just like us, with their love triangles and racial fetishes.
4. Riddle me this—these books are “historical fiction,” but they’re about pre-historical times. How’s that work?
Ok, I apologize if I sound defensive? But Jean M. Auel, ok? She spent a lot of time at her local library researching this stuff? And she also attended many archaeological conventions (whatever they are). In short, she bought many fine woven blankets and imitation sabre-tooth-tiger-bone necklaces and draped herself with them before sitting down at her word processor and just letting the SPIRIT of Ayla flow through her.
She’s reading her own book because it is JUST THAT GOOD.
I mean, SOMEONE had to invent sewing, agrarian culture, hide tanning techniques, the travois, domesticated animals, and the secret of fire. How do we know it WASN’T one gorgeous, amazing person? Who is also psychic? And figures out the science behind fertility? And can contact the spirit world? Huh? Not so smart now, are you? When YOU ride a cave lion across a field and also discover several plant-based medical breakthroughs and visit the future by chewing a psychotropic root, please, be my guest in questioning the perfection that is Clan of the Cave Bear. Sniff.
5. All right, so it’s six books, do I really have to read them all?
No, you just have to read most of them. And actually, I give you permission to skim much of the content. After reading the sixth description of how to dig a “ground oven” or hang herbs to dry on a “drying rack,” you kind of go cross-eyed and want to get on to the next cave-sex scene, already. Note: I never said Jean M. Auel was a GOOD writer. I just said she was a writer.
Here’s a basic guide to all six tomes:
Clan of the Cave Bear
Yes, absolutely, you have to read this one or you’ll be lost for the entire rest of the series. The last place you want to get lost is in the pre-historical landscape. You’d be eaten by a cave lion and I’d have it on my conscience.
The Valley of Horses
Again, a must-read. Ayla spends most of this one weaving baskets and making clay pots and domesticating animals, but then Jondalar happens along and she TAMES HIS HEART. This is also where the books get really rife with mentions of “her nodule of pleasure” and “her warm folds” and “his throbbing member.”
The Mammoth Hunters
Yeah, in this one they meet … wait for it … some mammoth hunters. Also, enter Ranec, sexy ethnic woodcarver. I don’t think I’m going to ruin it for you if I tell you that there’s a soap-operatic near-wedding scene at the end of this one. So many tears soaked up in lion-skin robes. So many unleavened cakes left out in the rain.
The Plains of Passage
Nodule/folds/member/repeat. This one is the equivalent of a long car trip (except wheels haven’t been invented) and you’re asking Jean M. “ARE WE THERE YET” the whole time, for 600 pages. SKIM.
The Shelters of Stone
This one has Jondalar taking Ayla home to meet his family. Will mom approve? Will they accept her Pro-Mag stance in a world that hates Cro-Magnons? Will they have any more of that bitchin’ psychotropic root stuff for her to get fucked up on? All this and more is revealed. READ IT, READ IT, GO ON!
The Land of Painted Caves
Do not, under any circumstances, read this book. Published nine years after The Shelters of Stone, I’m pretty sure the publishers sent someone with a sharp stick and a box of doughnuts to Jean-M’s house to alternately threaten and reward her as she typed out this book. The whole series is vaguely repetitive (Jean M. Auel knows A LOT about the mating patterns of ancient megaceros deer, flint knapping, ancient weaving techniques, etc.), this one is basically “Ayla walks somewhere, Ayla looks at a cave, Ayla is having trouble balancing her relationship and her career” until 600 pages in, it’s like Jean M. Auel shook herself awake and took her hand out of her pants after the 200th description of a lovingly drawn ibex on a cave roof and realized she might need to wrap this shit up in a deer skin. No. Back away until you hit the dawn of time.
Whew. That’s it for me. If you have any more questions, or want to debate hunting vs. gathering, or you want to chew on some psychotropic roots and, I dunno, call the corners—I’m your girl. I’ll just be over here, loving teaching my cat the prehistoric sign language that will let it know when I need it to go get me a hot ham’n’cheese.
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