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Like many readers who have enjoyed one or more of Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, I anticipated The Shelters of Stone with varying degrees of eagerness and annoyance over several years. In the real world, more than 12 years passed between the release of this latest volume and its predecessor, The Plains of Passage. No doubt, had the story of Ayla and Jondalar been proceeding in real-time, this final leg of their journey to the caves of the Zelondonii would have found them arriving at Jondalar's home surrounded by a bevy of children. Note that after another 8 years, a release date for the sixth book is still not confirmed. Sometime in 2010 has long been rumored, but the rumor mill is uncertain--bring on the grandchildren!
When the fifth book finally hit the shelves, I rushed to my nearest bookstore and bought my First Edition copy--one among several hundred thousand printed, no doubt. I read the introduction and exactly four pages of the book. The next time I visited my friendly bookstore, I purchased the unabridged audio version. Why? Because I was already a captive of Auel and her series, but I didn't have the time or energy required to tackle the book itself. I needed an easy way to wander prehistoric Europe with Ayla and Jondalar.
Why the cop out? Because The Shelters of Stone is a 753-page book (plus the introduction), the lengthiest offering to date of Auel's Earth's Children series. Not only is it long, it is at times characterized by turgid prose. Auel, who conducted painstaking research for all her books, can't seem to decide whether she's a novelist or an anthropologist. As a result, with each new volume of this series, she has bombarded her readers with ever-increasing attention to detail on everything from the nature of the European landscape during the last ice age--complete with long discourses on the geology of the areas described--to the construction of prehistoric tools and speculation about how social groups in humanity's ancient past may have been organized.
Listening to the book, as opposed to reading it, can be a joy. Auel is a skillful writer, and even her long descriptive passages on the medicinal properties of various plants can be reasonably interesting to hear. Not only that, but much of what Auel is trying to approximate with this work involves the oral tradition that ancient peoples must have followed. It is only right and proper that the material should lend itself well to the oral medium of our own age--audio cassetts and CDs played in the car while traveling back and forth to work. (How's that for rationalization?) In fairnesss to the printed form required by this review category, I recently went back to my first-edition hardback and read the actual book--years later and after retirement.
Auel's plots, overall for the series as well as for each volume therein, are relatively simple. Through her characters, we follow the lives and adventures first of Ayla (introduced as a child in The Clan of the Cave Bear) and then Jondalar (introduced in the second volume of the series, The Valley of Horses). From the point where Jondalar makes his entrance, the plot resolves into classic form: "Boy meets girl." "Boy and girl fall in love." "Boy and girl overcome many obstacles." This latest volume, The Shelters of Stone, provides the context for "Boy takes girl home to meet his mother, get married, and start a family."
Auel uses these simple plots to frame her efforts to address an extremely broad range of social, political, religious, technical, environmental, and scientific issues. Ayla and Jondalar, as readers will be amazed to discover, are on the cutting edge of innovation. Ayla pioneers the domestication of animals, develops basic surgical techniques, and discovers how to create fire by striking two stones together. She even intuits the fundamentals of sexual reproduction--deciding that it is the physical joining of a man and woman that creates new life, not the more esoteric joining of a man's spirit with a woman's that forms an essential part of the belief system for Stone Age man as developed by Auel. For his part, Jondalar revolutionizes hunting by developing the spear thrower. And during their travels, they learn about and perfect such new skills as how to make pottery from "mud," advances in flint knapping to produce finer points, and how to use a soft rock that burns to fuel fires. In The Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondalar bring all these wonders (and many more) to the Zelondonii, changing their lives and how they look at the world around them in ways that are both subtle and profound.
As depicted by Auel, the social and political order of prehistory parallels and foreshadows our own in more ways than we might wish. The social structure she creates has rankings that approximate class. Her characters are prone to both greatness and meanness. Through them, she shows that the effects of good and bad leadership in the caves of our ancestors aren't really so different from corresponding effects in modern nation states. She reminds us that the phenomena of spousal and substance abuse are not new. Auel also forces us to acknowledge that the fundamentals for prejudice--particularly against people and cultures that are different and unknown--were likely solidly in place in humanity's distant past.
Auel uses her novels as a medium for commenting on all these issues and more. Indeed, in many ways--perhaps in all the ways that really matter--the prehistoric men and women she depicts are not terribly different from us. In fact, they enjoy many of the same luxuries and tastes indulged by their modern descendants. Their lives are not shallow or overly burdened with the necessity of hunting and gathering any more than are ours are overwhelmed by work--some measure of balance is always left to the individual's discretion. Earth's Children have time for storytelling, reflecting on the nature of life and the universe, engaging in communal festivals, and building the family and friendship groupings that give their lives focus and depth.
In my opinion, however, no aspect of the prehistoric world created by Auel is more fascinating than her treatment of religion. In the Earth's Children series, the religion of the Zelondonii, indeed of all Cro-Magnon peoples of the prehistoric world, is that of the Great Mother Earth. Auel bases her conjectures on widespread finds of female fertility figures dating from the Neolithic era. Using anthropological and archeological evidence gleaned from a multitude of sources, she creates an entire religious ethos.
The worship of the Great Mother is essentially monotheistic and charges humanity with the duty to use and protect the earth and its bounty, which will in turn provide for all their needs. Conversely, abuse of the earth or lack of respect for other creatures created by the Mother invites the potential for all manner of calamity.
Within the framework of this ancient religion, sexuality is a matter of far greater innocence than in our own age. The sexual act is described as the "sharing of the Mother's gift of pleasures"--and such sharings, as long as they are approached mutually, are a way of honoring the Mother. The sharing of pleasures occurs naturally between husband and wife but is not exclusive to that relationship--and sharing may occur in homosexual as well as heterosexual venues. Auel does not depict sex as an indiscriminate act, but she does give socially acceptable sexual behavior a very wide latitude. Her descriptions of Ayla and Jondalar in their sharing of pleasures are respectfully and blatantly erotic. The reader (or the listener) can have no doubt as to the lead characters' shared passion, or the pleasure derived therefrom. Nonetheless, these scenes are handled with such care and dignity that I feel no embarrassment or misgivings in recommending Auel's fiction, erotica and all, to either my mother or my daughters.
The Shelters of Stone is a very long read. It's also a very long "listen." The unabridged audio version lasts approximately 33 hours. Sandra Burr, the narrator, has a pleasant voice that's no chore to follow through Auel's ancient world. If you have the time and inclination, read the book. But if you have the inclination but not the time, listen to the audio version. However you choose to experience this novel, you will find it both remarkable and mundane. In my opinion, however, it's worth the effort.