Saturday, August 6, 2016

Reading The Clan of the Cave Bear in Memory of Mom

After a two-year battle with breast cancer, my mom died 16 years ago today.  Last year I wrote about my typical Dairy Queen remembrance (“Commemorating the Anniversary of my Mom’s Death”).  This year I thought I’d try something new, but don’t worry, what my mom jokingly referred to as a “recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen” is still on order.

When I was a kid I remember that my mom was a fan of Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series.  The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels were always around the house.  Sadly my mom didn’t live long enough to read the last two novels in the series. 

I’ve always meant to read some of those books, both as a way to connect with my mom and out of my amateur interests in paleoanthropology (I’m particularly fascinated by Neanderthals).  Recently I decided to finally start the first book.

As a science fiction fan, I’ve enjoyed Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax (alternate universe Neanderthals visit Canada!) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman (an excellent novel about early humans living about 30,000 years ago near the Chauvet Cave in France).  In interviews Robinson has said that he considers Shaman to be science fiction as it is fiction based on and compatible with current scientific understandings in paleoanthropology. 

On that note, I consider Auel’s books to be science fiction as well, although she didn’t have Robinson’s benefit of several additional decades of research.  For example, the main character, Ayla, could not have had blonde hair and blue eyes over 30,000 years ago as these are more recently developed human traits, and Neanderthals may have died out before the novel takes place (some recent estimates place their extinction closer to 40,000 years ago).

I haven’t finished The Clan of the Cave Bear yet.  I’m about halfway through.  Here are some thoughts thus far.

I see why my mom liked this book.  Auel’s world building (if that’s the right word for it) is amazing.  I see why some readers find the details, especially of flora and fauna, to be too much.  In particular, get ready for a whole lot of information about medicinal herbs.  Auel consistently violates the “show don’t tell” rule, but I think that’s a silly rule, anyway, especially when you have a whole world to explain!  In my opinion, the detail enhances the sense that you’re not just reading a story, you’re traveling 30,000 years into the past.

The story itself is engrossing as well.  Young Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl, finds herself orphaned and then adopted by a clan of Neanderthals.  She’s a permanent outsider, but she also forms deep personal connections.  She’s depicted as having certain cognitive and physical advantages over the rest of the clan (nowadays scientists increasingly see Neanderthals as cognitively not so different from us).

The Neanderthal society as depicted in the book has a strictly patriarchal power structure.  Although women are exclusively in charge of some spheres (medicine, childbirth, and so on), the men are hunters who have near complete power to order women around.  In real life there’s disagreement about Neanderthal gender roles and some scientists think it’s possible that women were hunters, too, but it’s worth remembering that this is a novel, not a textbook. 

As a novel it’s clear Auel is using her artistic license, but it’s not entirely clear what she’s doing with that license.  Is it a statement about feminist challenges to patriarchy, especially given Ayla’s trouble accepting these power relations?  Is it advocating a sort of difference feminism?  Is it a critique of feminism?

Whatever the case may be, I wondered how my mom must’ve felt about it, especially as a single mother raising two kids in the 80’s and early 90’s.  Did she herself have trouble fitting into patriarchal power structures?

I remember once being listed as her husband on correspondence from our church.  Apparently the idea of a single mother with a son did not compute for suburban Catholics in the late 80’s.  When I was about 10 or 12, I remember my mom lamenting the fact that I didn’t have enough male role models.  Without missing a beat, I responded, “Sure I do: I have you!”  I was probably making a joke, and I did actually have some male role models, but maybe I unwittingly had a serious point: she did an excellent a job in difficult circumstances.

So reading The Clan of the Cave Bear has been educational for me in more than one sense.

I decided to read one of my mom’s favorite books as a way to connect with my past as a human being and as a son.  Whether they’ve been gone 30,000 years or 16 years, whether we know them through science or memory, we are always in the shadows of our ancestors genetically, psychologically, culturally.  A few months ago my sister gave birth to a boy (her son, my nephew, my mom’s grandson); he’s an adorable little baby and a concrete reminder that this entanglement of ancestors and descendants stretches into the future as well.

Today I’m reading a book about prehistoric humans to feel connected to the one ancestor who did more than anyone else to make me who I am, whom I miss incredibly, and who, it turns out, liked an interesting book and was always sure to have her daily recommended dose of Dairy Queen.


  1. It is pretty badly outdated by now and the other five books in the series are not nearly as good as the first. It is not as apparent in the first book but the whole fall from paradise that is the overarching theme of the series starts to grate after a while. To the point where I wasn't even sure I should do reviews of the last two.
    I enjoyed reading this one a lot though. Whatever her flaws as a writer may be, her comprehension of ice age ecology and various survival techniques is very impressive.

    1. Yes, I'm trying to remember that this is a work of fiction, although Auel did a great job given what was current around 1980. As a novel, I'm enjoying it very much. I'll check out the next book or two. Most people seem to share your view that the later books go downhill considerably. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I read this in highschool and, I must admit, it did not thrill me (even though I was something of a target demographic for it) and I never read the rest. Ah well. I remember just being very unsatisfied with it. I'm not sure I actually finished reading it.

    In completely meaningless coincidences, my father died 8/6/00 -- he died in his sleep of congestive heart failure, at home, and because he'd concealed his condition, I didn't know and thus didn't find out for about two days, when his body was discovered by a friend of his when he didn't show up for work.

    1. I totally understand that the book's not everyone's cup of tea. It's not exactly fast moving.

      That's a sad coincidence. I'm sorry for your loss. My mom's death wasn't such a surprise given her terminal illness, but she took a sharp turn for the worse just a few days earlier.

  3. Thank you. The same for you and yours. No loss is particularly easy.

    The thing is, I may have to revisit the book, as I have found occasionally my teenage impressions of particular books changes over the years. Now I'm curious. I'll have to hunt for a cheap copy and give it the 3 chapter/100 pages trial.

  4. Now that I've finished the book, here are my thoughts on the whole thing: