Thoughts on Clan of the Cave Bear

Yesterday, I overheard two strangers talking in a parking lot.

“….there’s this group of Neanderthals, and they take in a young Cro-Magnon girl, and….”

And right away I knew what they were talking about. Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel. Half my adolescence was wrapped up in that book and its sequels.

It’s a good book for an adolescent, and because it’s fiction about an extinct group of hominids, my book, To Give a Rose, is inevitably compared to it—a comparison I find both flattering and a little irritating, given that the two books also have important differences. And I’ve been meaning to talk about my old friend—this book about Neanderthals—for a while.

Maybe that overheard conversation in the parking lot was my signal that it’s time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what genre Rose might belong to, what group of readers might like it, and where those readers might be. I hadn’t thought about any of that while I was writing, which is probably better from a creative perspective, but I find I need to switch gears, now, and figure these things out. Rose isn’t a genre book—it’s not sci-fi, romance, mystery, or anything like that, nor does it fit squarely into any of the more respectable literary categories, like historical fiction or women’s literature. It’s not quite normal (neither am I).

But, again, like me, it’s not altogether without kin.

There is a small but growing body of fiction rooted firmly in the life sciences. Some of it is speculative, as Rose is, while some is not. All of it might logically be called science fiction or science literature, except that both names have already been taken by quite different beasts. As far as I know, the group has no name, and I have been finding its members quite by accident.

In no particular order, here are those I am currently aware of:

There are debatable titles, too–2002: A Space Odyssey, for its introductory section on human evolution; A Wild Life, which is about sasquatches, among other things; My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away to live in the woods; or Kira, a Golden Eagle, which is simply about an eagle…the list goes on, and we could argue about which might be included and which not and why.

My point is that my book is not alone. If I have time and energy, I’ll post about each of the others, by way of tribute and by way of supporting my fellow authors.

But I’m starting with Clan of the Cave Bear.

After all that, it turns out that my review of Cave Bear has to be somewhat mixed. I’m ok with that, as the book’s reputation has already been made. I won’t hurt it any with some mild and respectful criticism.

The story starts with an orphaned girl of our own species who is adopted by a group of Neanderthals, he Clan, as they call themselves. They raise her, and the conflicts and commonality between her type of humanity and theirs drive the plot (which I won’t give away). The descriptions of their world are rich and detailed, as are the descriptions of the Clan way of life—tool-making, cooking, hunting, medicine, parts of the book read almost like a manual. It’s hard to accept that the author has never actually been to Ice Age Europe. That the book was researched in incredible depth cannot be doubted.

In one scene they use a particular plant, elecampane, to treat some of the symptoms of tuberculosis. I’ve used the same plant to treat myself for both bronchitis and pneumonia. It works.

Obviously, some of Auel’s vision is guesswork. There are no living Neanderthals left to consult, among other challenges. Some of Auel’s guesses are appealing but doubtful, but some seem startlingly prescient. She writes about the two types of human hybridizing. At one point a Clan member, who is a gifted psychic, comments that such hybrids are the Clan’s “only children,” meaning that they would survive after his people went extinct. That some modern humans are, in fact, hybrids was a radical and dubious idea when Clan of the Cave Bear was published, but genetic analysis has since proven it beyond doubt.

The Neanderthal fraction is never large, but it is largest in Southern Europeans. As an Italian-American myself, I am proud to say I am part Clan.

That Neanderthals were human, simply a different kind of human, is the most important part of Jean M. Auel’s vision. Even if the specifics of her guesses about how their minds worked are wrong, she is not wrong about their overall humanity—there is some debate, but many researchers have designated Neanderthals Homo sapiens neandertalis, while we are Homo sapiens sapiens. That is, we’re actually members of the same species, just different subspecies. Taxonomy aside, Neanderthals existed as a group for a lot longer than we have so far, and their brains were larger than ours are. While they left behind much simpler tools and very little art, the remains of their cultural sites suggest some kind of religion. They cared for their ill and disabled members and they buried their dead with ceremony—and with flowers.

The idea of the stupid, grunting cave man is wrong, based on incomplete and outdated evidence and on the assumption, now known to be incorrect, that since Neanderthals had more prominent jaws and lower foreheads than we do, that they must be the “missing link.” They’re not. We didn’t evolve from them, our peoples both evolved from a common ancestor. But the old idea is persistent. Jean M. Auel offers a different, more accurate vision.

She champions the idea that there is more than one way to be intelligent, more than one way to be human.

So, why did I say that my review can’t be all-glowing? It’s because, frankly, Jean M. Auel is better at creating worlds and characters than at writing about them. Great books get better with each subsequent reading—hers get worse.

On the first go-through, especially if you’re an adolescent, what jumps out is the fullness and complexity of the world, the believability and relatability of the characters. You can almost smell the Pleistocene. You put the book down for a moment and expect to see a woolly mammoth walk by. It’s the sort of book you want to go back to, read again so you can re-experience that world.

But when you do, especially if you’ve become a writer in the meantime, you start to notice problems.

The same phrases get recycled over and over, and some of those phrases are hokey—a mammoth hunt invariably features “panicked pachyderms,” for example. There are weird lapses in language, such as when an apprentice medicine woman refers to sex as “a man putting his organ in the place where babies come from.” This girl is being trained to treat tuberculosis, among other ailments, but doesn’t know a word for “vagina”? And characters don’t always react to events in believable ways, as when one is raped repeatedly for months on end and never develops any sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Eventually, these lapses and others start to get distracting.

Some of these problems aren’t as obvious in this first book in the series (in the sequels there are more opportunities for the panicking of pachyderms), but they do seem to be endemic to Auel’s writing style.

But where she’s good, in world-building and in making characters from a very different world three-dimensional and relatable, there’s no one better.

When people suggest that Rose is like Cave Bear, my reflexive response is generally NO. Australopithecus afarensis was a very different species, Pliocene Africa was a very different place, my themes are totally different and I, as an author, am fully capable of using the word vagina where appropriate.

But in creating a plausible and vivid vision of a vanished world (honestly, all that alliteration is accidental), I can only hope I did as well as Jean M. Auel. She set the bar. And it was her work I had in mind when I decided what I wanted to do.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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One Response to Thoughts on Clan of the Cave Bear

  1. Pingback: Let’s Write About Sex. Or Not | News From Caroline

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