I first got a copy of one of the books in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series as a free gift for spending more than $50 at the bookstore. It hung around my room for awhile and finally I was bored and decided to try it. To my surprise, I ended up really enjoying it. For those who haven’t read it, it’s set in Europe during the last Neolithic Ice Age, about 20,000 to 25,000 years ago.
It was the fourth book in the series and I hurried out and grabbed the first three to find out the backstory. I enjoyed them, too. One of my favourite things was that Auel had created what felt like an alien culture. This wasn’t thinly disguised modern cultures superimposed on the past. The culture of the Neanderthals felt like something real but totally removed from ours. Even the Homo Sapien Neolithic cultures had that alien feel, although there were some familiar elements. It made sense to me. Cultures change dramatically over time and this was before several major revolutions in our thinking, so it should be alien to us.
I also enjoyed the bits of archaeological reference that were thrown in, although I thought the descriptions of the plant and animal life of the Ice Age went on far too long. But, hey, I’ve plowed through Tolkien’s descriptions to get to the great story behind them and I was willing to do the same again. I was impressed by the level of research Auel must have done. The background was very realistic.
Cue the twelve year wait for the next book.
It wasn’t the first time an author has stopped a series I was really into. I accept that sometimes the story just isn’t coming for you or you get other interests. As a reader, I find it frustrating and wish authors who don’t want to continue their series would allow other authors to give it a shot. But that’s a separate issue.
To my surprise, eventually the fifth book in Earth’s Children did come out. I got it as soon as I realized and settled down to read. Only to be somewhat disappointed.
The descriptions of plant and animal life were longer than ever, and no longer justified by the plot. In the fourth book, they were travelling across Europe, so describing the changing environment made sense. For the first three, the descriptions were usually tied into something the characters were doing: hunting or looking for herbs and foods. Now they just seemed to stretch on forever. However the plot was still interesting and Auel seemed to be setting up for something big. Something that never quite arrived but there was a note promising a conclusion in the next book.
Ten years later . . .
The conclusion. Excitement mixed with trepidation. Would it be good?
Sadly, not so much.
Auel’s Neolithic culture started to sound exactly like modern day Western culture. The plot was weak and mostly concentrated in the last hundred pages or so (in a nearly 700 page book). Most of the conflicts were the exact same conflicts from earlier without any development from the characters. At this point, I’m going to go into specifics so if you don’t want to know, don’t read further.
Ayla, her heroine, discovers that men are equally responsible for conception. This is a huge revelation and I have no doubt it revolutionized the Neolithic world. However, I doubt it changed things literally overnight as the book suggests. But my major frustration was when she has her hero, Jondalar, engage in extra-marital sex with another woman and the community as a whole conspires to keep Ayla from finding out. Now, I didn’t think the affair was particularly believable but that wasn’t what annoyed me. In the culture Auel created, fidelity is not important. Frankly, without understanding the male role in procreation, it likely wasn’t considered important. People have sex with people other than their mates and there are even community festivals which are designed to encourage this. It’s not considered a big deal.
So why is everyone keeping it a secret?
If it’s not a big deal, then there should have been no problem bringing it up. In fact, it likely would have been brought up to avoid surprising Ayla. If it is considered to be a problem, then why would the community be set up to sanction and encourage it? It’s the lack of consistency that bothers me. The attitude of the community is closer to the modern (or at least fifty years ago) view where male infidelity is not encouraged but considered almost inevitable and it is lack of discretion which is the greater sin. This makes no sense in a culture where women are venerated as the Image of God and tend to hold the greater social power. If anything, it should be the other way around. If Ayla had an affair, I could see the community overlooking it to avoid upsetting her mate. If it was going to be a single-sex privilege, it makes much more sense for it to be a woman’s prerogative, given the culture Auel created. After all, the idea of men as more sexually excited is something that’s only existed in the last two hundred years. Before that, women were the more carnal sex for almost all of recorded history.
As you’ve probably guessed, I was disappointed. I suspect there was just too great a gap between the first and final books. Perspectives change, ideas change, values change and I can see how it would be difficult for an author to recapture their original voice. I’m a little sad that the characters were given such a rushed ending after so much careful preparation. I would certainly recommend the first three books to anyone but the second three, not so much.