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Clan of the Cave Bear

A book by Jean M. Auel

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Reread the Classic Human Drama

  • Mar 23, 2011
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After reading "The Land of Painted Caves: A Novel (Earth's Children)," the sixth and last book in Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, and happily catching glimpses of the more human side to her eventually Wonder Woman-esque protagonist, Ayla, I decided to re-explore the original offering, "The Clan of the Cave Bear," to rediscover the roots of my initial fascination with the "Clan" universe. Even after thirty years, "Cave Bear" still maintains its high standing in my world of notable characterizations.

When Auel first published this novel in 1980, she may have had an educated inkling based on her own extensive research of now known facts regarding modern man's DNA and its relationship to that of Neanderthals. In 2010, biologists, led by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany announced that by comparing the Neanderthal genome with those of various present day humans, science can conclude that about 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals. The implication this presence suggests infallibly that which archeology has not yet proven: that indeed interbreeding between modern humans ("the Others" as Auel calls those of Ayla's race) and Neanderthals (the "Clan" or the more derogatory "Flatheads" again part of Auel's nomenclature) had definitely taken place and that certain characteristics perhaps thought inferior were not in terms of ultimate evolutionary survival. Indeed, the entire premise for "The Clan of the Cave Bear" is given a scholarly nod with the advent of this newer information. Hats off to Auel and her prescient cleverness!

But it is not only her scientific savvy that sets "Cave Bear" apart from her other stories featuring Ayla. Human drama, whether it be Neanderthal or Cro Magnon, when it is well done, begs for attention, acting as the hub of a wheel of storytelling that is repeated and enjoyed over and over again. Ayla's story is just that, a symphony of human emotions that hit the reader at the basest level, immediately engaging him/her and sustaining interest throughout the highs and lows of the protagonist's journey of inner and outer growth.

From the start, Auel presents the five-year-old Ayla, wandering in the aftermath of an earthquake that has not only orphaned her but has set her adrift in a brutal environment sharp with tooth and fang of predators both two and four-legged. No reader can fail to empathize with her plight or her dogged bravery as she stumbles through the void of hunger, illness and an attack by a she-lion. Even when she is discovered unconscious by a pack of Neanderthals displaced from their home cave by the same earthquake, the immediate interplay between Isa, the medicine woman and her two brothers--Creb, the crippled albeit great shaman, and Brun, the Clan leader--evokes the strong desire to cheer when they take her in, fully realizing that this avant-garde decision will cause problems for the routine-minded tribe. As in all good stories, the reader senses the conflicts to come and awaits them with enthused anticipation.

Auel crafts an entire Neanderthal societal structure which the reader discovers as Ayla becomes more aware--not only of her Cro-Magnon differences but, of her function as an individual within such a tightly dependent group where tradition, compliance and strict thinking within "the box" are tantamount to the group's identity. As one would expect from a novel written in the ERA era of the 70s, the idea of a lowly woman pitting herself against the brawn of hairy, bow-legged hunters does enable Ayla to flaunt her more highly evolved brain to great advantage. Nonetheless, in "Clan," Auel hones and shapes Ayla's supremacy with a good storyteller's ease. Ayla may eventually become the stuff of legends, but in this novel, she struggles, grows and realizes her path with the same expert finesse as any other literary character worth his/her salt.

All this results in a rather unique "coming-of-age" that includes remarkably unforgettable characters. Auel paints with a palette of primary emotions that depict all the humans whether they share the ancestral memories of the Clan or can quickly grasp the concept of numbers beyond the quantity of digits of one hand. Isa exhibits all the quintessential traits of the world's best mother; her concern and frustration with Ayla's differences and the repercussions of these on her future remind the reader that maternal love remains an undiluted absolute. Creb's fascination with Ayla and his awareness of what her intriguing attributes will eventually mean for the Clan never detracts from the fierce love and protection he feels for the girl. The mutual dislike shared by Ayla and Broud and the contest of wills that ensue between the two of them adds pungent spice to an already tasty stew of human interaction. The leader Brun contributes an intrepid nobility and honor that sets him high on a pedestal where few Cro-Magnons can reach. Indeed, all of the characters add something unique to the mix and despite their guttural names sweetly vocalize and pantomime a full range of all that life, good or bad, ultimately represents.

Bottom line? Jean M. Auel's "The Clan of the Cave Bear" epitomizes modern storytelling at its best. Filled with a rainbow spectrum of human emotions, mindsets and sensibilities, "Cave Bear," may depict the struggles of early mankind to survive and illustrate from an ersatz anthropological perspective various aspects of daily life, but succeeds, first and foremost, in its portrayal of the dynamics of family, adoptive and otherwise. Unlike some of Auel's other novels featuring lead character, Ayla, "Cave Bear" maintains a quiet dignity where small actions and nuanced impressions round out a story filled with the normal roller coaster of emotional development to perfection. In this novel, Ayla wins and loses without becoming the too-perfect super human of the other installments. Highly recommended, "The Clan of the Cave Bear" was well worth the time revisiting. Sandra Burr performs this audio-book with charm and a wonderfully nuanced voice that gives voice to the characters without being overdone.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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More Clan of the Cave Bear reviews
review by . August 03, 2010
My absolute favorite series of all time!!! Excellent reading/writing, and the books only get better.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Many have tried to copy this authors style of "pre-history romance" but none have even come close to this well researched, well written series.
review by . July 11, 2010
An old favorite, the series by Auel was just recently brought back to mind when I found it at the library and reread The Clan of the Cave Bear. I had the entire series up to The Shelters of Stone but unfortunately lost them in Katrina. Between that and my 1st edition collection of Harry Potter hardbacks I still swallow a sniffle. An epic tale, deeply rooted in historical fantasy, the series is a wonderful view of pre-historic man's (woman's) life and a series that I cherished for a long time. While …
Quick Tip by . July 09, 2010
I love this book, and the rest of the seris. I just wish Ms. Auel didn't take so long to complete the next in the series. I am just dying to know what happens next.
review by . July 03, 2010
The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first of a five book series by Jean M. Auel. It is, to date, my favorite book. If you read the first book, you will not want to stop! Luckily, there are four more thick books that will keep you entertained for a long time! I picked up Clan of the Cave Bear at an outdoor book sale just because...I was not really that interested... Who knew I would fall in love with an entire tribe of prehistoric people?      As someone with a strong interest in …
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Favorite book series ever! everyone should read all 5 books!
review by . September 15, 2000
I first purchased this book nearly 20 years ago, and each time I re-read it I find new and fascinating things within. There is no doubt that this is a meticulously researched and crafted novel, and we all learn to identify with the waif Ayla as she struggles to survive with her new family.However I must say that even though I have read and enjoyed all the books in the series so far (one just has to know how Ayla is faring!), this is by far THE strongest and best. The characterisations are strong, …
review by . April 17, 2000
Pros: Good Story, Super Research     Cons: Very few, hard to pick one out.     I've read Clan of the Cave Bear more than five times which is a pretty good indicator that I like this book. I've taken a lot from it over the years, and my perception of it has changed as I myself have grown and changed.      When I first read this book, back when my children were small, I found it to be a good story with excitement and adventure. It seemed …
About the reviewer
Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #166
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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When her parents are killed by an earthquake, 5-year-old Ayla wanders through the forest completely alone. Cold, hungry, and badly injured by a cave lion, the little girl is as good as gone until she is discovered by a group who call themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear. This clan, left homeless by the same disaster, have little interest in the helpless girl who comes from the tribe they refer to as the "Others." Only their medicine woman sees in Ayla a fellow human, worthy of care. She painstakingly nurses her back to health--a decision that will forever alter the physical and emotional structure of the clan. Although this story takes place roughly 35,000 years ago, its cast of characters could easily slide into any modern tale. The members of the Neanderthal clan, ruled by traditions and taboos, find themselves challenged by this outsider, who represents the physically modern Cro-Magnons. And as Ayla begins to grow and mature, her natural tendencies emerge, putting her in the middle of a brutal and dangerous power struggle.

Although Jean Auel obviously takes certain liberties with the actions and motivations of all our ancestors, her extensive research into the Ice Age does shine through--especially in the detailed knowledge of plants and natural remedies used by the medicine woman and passed down to Ayla. Mostly, though, this first in the series of four is a wonderful story of survival. Ayla's personal evolution is a compelling and relevant tale. --Sara ...

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ISBN-10: 0517189186
ISBN-13: 978-0517189184
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Wings

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