Which is more important, the clan or the individual? In Jean Auel’s 500-page series opener, Cro-Magnon Ayla navigates the customs of her adoptive Neanderthal people while pondering what it means that she is “Other.” To assimilate, she must comply with clan rules with which she disagrees. Sometimes she chooses defiance. When her practice of hunting with a sling (a man’s privilege) is discovered, she is placed under a death curse. Ayla isolates in a secret cave, an apt metaphor for the forced solitudes of today’s coronavirus pandemic. As clan political dynamics shift, she must determine whether she can live under the rule of a leader who, despite her valued status as a medicine woman, systematically abuses her.
Since its publication in 1980, the novel and its five sequels in the Earth’s Children series have generated a body of criticism, favorable and unfavorable, around its historicity, feminism, and treatment of race, among other topics. For the quarantined in 2020, though, The Clan of the Cave Bear does what it emphatically must: transport the reader to another world.
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. Penguin Random House, June 2002.
Reviewer bio: Amy Ballard writes and teaches in southern Idaho. Her fiction has appeared in Barely South Review and elsewhere. Find Amy at www.amyballard.com.
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