THE SHELTERS OF STONE
Jean M. Auel


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Crown Publishers, 2002
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Prehistoric Europe

Jondalar brings Ayla home to his people, in this fifth book in the international best selling series Earthís Children. He knows there will be problems winning acceptance for her, at least among some members of his Caves, but no matter what happens, he no longer doubts that Ayla, with all her beauty and gifts, is the most important thing in his life.

Ayla creates an immediate stir riding into camp on a horse with a wolf by her side, and that is only the beginning. Ayla and Jondalar have many new ideas and inventions to offer the Zelandonii Caves. Ayla discovers that her people, the Cro-Magnons, as we know them, donít all welcome change. Some of them react to it as poorly as the Neanderthal Clan does. As time goes on, it seems the more Ayla has to give, the more certain people hate her. This isnít just conservatives who canít accept the inclusion of animals and Clan in friendly relationship. It also includes a woman who had planned to mate Jondalar, a lazy troublemaker who loses face when Ayla takes over his neglected family responsibilities, and a man who suffers from the prejudice against Clan. However the vast majority of the Zelandonii quickly come to admire her abilities, strength of character, and helping heart. She settles into a happy life with Jondalar and his family.

We were told several times in THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS that Ayla has a destiny crucial to the development of her people. Zolena, the spiritual leader of the Zelandonii, also sees this, and throughout THE SHELTERS OF STONE she is attempting to recruit Ayla into her religious caste. Ayla resists, longing to be an average housewife. This would be quite funny if the books had a sense of humor, because "average" and "Ayla" have nothing to do with each other. Ayla eventually must confront her own nature, including her frightening experiences in the spirit world.

I went to a talk by Jean Auel about THE SHELTERS OF STONE. When Auel decided to set her story in the Europe of 30,000 years ago, part of her came home. The vitality of her connection with this time was obvious throughout her talk, and in the books we could get the impression that the world she has created out of her research is more important to her than her characters are. The size of the books would be much reduced if she didnít pour into them so many of the details she has learned from the excavations of prehistoric sites, cave paintings, fossils, herbalist lore, and crafter skills. Each reader will have their own interests and affinities. My eyes glaze over when she goes into flintknapping detail, and I focus again when she gets to the animal training techniques. Incidentally, her knowledge of flint working, animal training, and other behaviors must be the speculations of present day specialists if they donít show in cave paintings. The structures of the various societies came partly out of Auelís prolific imagination, especially the character of the Clan.

Scholars have guessed much from finds in prehistoric digs. An example comes from the grave of a Neanderthal man who was severely injured and left handicapped. Healing and bone wear show that he was nursed back to life and cared for for the rest of his days. Auel combined this case that we know of, to the sociological observation that compassion helps groups survive, and came up with the idea of the child Ayla being adopted and then caring for the crippled Creb. This is how she included compassion in her concept of the Clan, when she created Aylaís childhood companions.

In her talk Auel said, "The novelist has to live the lives of his characters." She did this more successfully in the earlier books, when there were fewer people to focus on. In THE SHELTERS OF STONE she gives this kind of focus to Ayla, Jondalar, and Zolena. Other people are sketched in, with one type of exception. Throughout the series, the characters who have tugged at our hearts are the children. The first book, THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, was a cultural phenomenon. In my opinion this was because Auel does children so well and Ayla was then a child. MAMMOTH HUNTERS has a wonderful child creation in Rydag, the half-Clan boy. The baby animals Ayla adopts in VALLEY OF HORSES and MAMMOTH HUNTERS are also completely charming. To me, THE SHELTERS OF STONE takes on an emotional appeal it had lacked when we meet Lanoga, the 10-year-old girl attempting to mother her neglected brothers and sisters, and Lanidar, the boy with a withered arm.

All of Auelís books are written in an inexhaustible flow of vivid word pictures. I do mean inexhaustible Ė the flood of words is overwhelming. Perhaps the most surprising thing in her talk was that the original idea of the series was for a short story. Thousands of pages and many millions of copies later, she is still going strong, with most of the interpersonal conflicts in Aylaís new community still to be resolved in later books. Another interesting fact is that Auel was a poet before she began to write fiction. Poets rarely make news, but one can tell from the books that poetry came easily to her. Her descriptions are clear and often beautiful, and she shows an especially strong feel for landscape and weather.

Perhaps I should be kind and ignore the seriesí fourth book, THE PLAINS OF PASSAGE, but I feel obligated to my readers: In my view PLAINS was a disaster. It reads like a botanistís travel notebooks, until the introduction of a tribe of amazon women who would have been more at home in a comic book. Several of the incidents in PLAINS are recapped in SHELTERS as they are needed, and that is quite enough. It is not necessary to read the whole book.

So, we finally ask ourselves, is the setting as a whole believable? Very, considering the amount of research and personal experience she put into the world and the life styles. We may wonder if existence was actually as peaceful as Auel usually portrays it, but that choice is her prerogative as storyteller. One thing is ho-hum predictable: Ayla invents everything from the flint striker to the sewing needle, and it will be no surprise when she discovers how to plant crops and moves her whole hunter-gatherer civilization into the era of farming.

June 2002 Originally Published by Independent Reviews Site
Revised Review Nov 2003

 

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