It is the most unlikely of ideas for a best seller: a blonde, upright, fineboned five-year-old girl named Ayla is orphaned by an earthquake into an elemental earth near the Black Sea 35,000 years ago. Near death, she is found and reluctantly taken in by a migrating clan of hulking, bowlegged Neanderthal men and women. The adoption is reluctant because she is not of the Clan of the Cave Bear, but from the rival race from the north, the Others, the Cro-Magnon. It is even more unlikely that American first-novelist Jean Auel could convince others of the idea’s potential, publishing The Clan of the Cave Bear as the first in a six-book series called Earth’s Children. But despite an arid narrative style that would have crushed a less audacious story, Auel has fashioned an historical romance with nuggets of archeology and anthropology.
After joining the shuffling, grunting clan, Ayla enters a sort of Paleolithic Perils of Pauline. The young girl, different of necessity, tries to meld into her new world, to adopt the servile, tradition-laden ways of women in her new family, only to be goaded into constant acts of rebellion by her own superior and innovative mind. She is unrelentingly odd to the clan. Unlike them she laughs and defies fate by rescuing clan children from inevitable death at the hands of the unforgiving ocean and animals. Worse, she defies the oldest of clan taboos and learns to use a sling to hunt, earning the undying enmity of the mercurial Broud, heir apparent to the clan leadership, and the fascination of Mog-ur, the deformed magician who glimpses the death of his own race in her ability to adapt and change.
Auel has created a remarkable, speculative portrait of a preconscious world, different from science fiction be-
cause of the constant echoes of human experience found there. The documentary effect is achieved by sprinkled passages of Dick-and-Jane anthropology on topics such as herbs, fire transporting or toolmaking. As a narrative technique it’s not new: Arthur Hailey has made fortunes serving up thinly novelized instruction manuals to airports or car factories. Auel’s pedagogy is more successful because it illuminates a plausible if melodramatic ancestral world oddly comforting in its richness and diversity. Moreover, it will likely reward its sponsors financially, partially because it adheres to the perennially seductive saga format of The Thorn Birds and Shogun, or of Dickens for that matter.
But its success will ultimately be due to the affecting character of Ayla, whose life story will bind the Earth's Children series together. A sort of CroMagnon Katharine Hepburn, she stoically endures innumerable beatings, a rape and ritual banishment at the hands of oafish and inferior males before finally earning the honorific: The Woman Who Hunts. In Ayla, Auel has an engine both familiar and intriguingly alien enough to drive her next five books. Thomas Hopkins
MACLEAN’S BEST-SELLER LIST
1 Firestarter, King (7)
2 Joshua Then and Now, Richler(A)
3 The Bourne Identity, Ludium (3)
4 Rage of Angels, Sheldon (2)
5 The Fifth Horseman, Collins & Lapierre (8)
6 Random Winds, Plain (6)
7 Solo, Higgins (4)
8 Fanny, Jong(9)
9 Princess Daisy, Krantz (5)
10 Sins of the Fathers, Howatch
( ) Position last week
1 The Third Wave, Toffler(A)
2 The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813, Berton (7)
3 How to Invest Your Money and Profit From Inflation (revised edition), Shulman (2)
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.