I mentioned in my previous Razor Mountain post that I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. A portion of Razor Mountain follows a pre-historic tribe, and Cave Bear is one of the few titles I’ve come across that is set in a similar time period, albeit in a different part of the world.
The book gave me some things to think about as far as prehistoric settings go. There were aspects of it I really enjoyed. However, the book also had a number of small issues that, taken together, made it a frustrating read for me. Today, I want to dig into those things, and try to discover what I can learn from them to improve my own writing.
The Clan of the Cave Bear is written mostly as straight historical fiction, with a few fantasy elements. The protagonist of the story is Ayla, a Cro Magnon (early modern human) child who loses her family in an earthquake within the first few pages. She is eventually rescued and comes to live with the titular Clan of the Cave Bear, a Neanderthal tribe that was displaced by the same earthquake and forced to search for a new cave. The Clan have only rare interactions with Ayla’s kind, who they call “the Others,” but end up adopting her.
As Ayla grows, she has to deal with the challenges of integrating into the Clan as an outsider. Though her body is noticeably different, the conflicts between her and the Clan are primarily differences in worldview. Auel drives this conflict with the fantasy element of the book. The Neanderthals of the Clan possess ancestral memories that are passed down through generations. They rely on the experiences of previous generations, as well as their own, to navigate the world around them. Auel paints the Clan as a slowly dying race. Their long memory keeps them in a rut of tradition and limits their ability to adapt to change. Ayla, as homo sapiens, lacks their racial memory, but is more adaptable and quick to learn. She chafes under the heavy tradition of Clan life, and constantly seeks out new skills and new experiences.
Lesson #1 — A Little Verisimilitude Goes a Long Way
Auel does a tremendous job constructing a believable world filled with detail. Ayla learns rudimentary medicine from her surrogate mother, the tribe’s medicine woman, who expounds on dozens of plants and their uses. The variety of animals and their habitats are also important to the Clan’s survival, and described in great detail. The tools used by the clan, how they are made, and how the go about their everyday tasks are all carefully thought-out.
I don’t know much about plants, let alone their medicinal properties, but I’m betting Auel did quite a bit of research to get the details right. She didn’t have to name all the plants, or go into detail about which ones are used to treat different ailments. The story could be told without those details. But these are things that the protagonist is learning, and things that her adoptive mother is intimately familiar with. Those details help the reader to feel what she’s feeling by learning about this plants as she does.
There is no limit to the level of detail you can include in a novel, but at some point, it bogs down the story. The trick is finding particular places to add that detail that help the setting feel more like a living world, without getting lost in the weeds.
Lesson #2 — Perspective is Powerful…and Dangerous
The story starts with the child, Ayla, losing her family in an earthquake. Although the story follows her and ostensibly shows her perspective, it becomes clear very early on that the narrator is distant, wiser than this child, and has more modern sensibilities.
Brush close by the upstream banks quivered, animated by unseen movement at the roots, and downstream, boulders bobbed in unaccustomed agitation. Beyond them, stately conifers of the forest into which the stream flowed lurched grotesquely.
As the story goes on, the narration veers into scientific terms to describe some of the animals and their less ferocious descendants in modern times. The narrator is not anchored to any character’s perspective. It’s not anchored in the time period of the story.
Some of this is personal taste and fashion in fiction writing (this kind of third-person omniscient perspective has fallen out of favor in recent years), but there are some clear downsides to this style. As a reader, it’s hard to feel close to Ayla when the narration seems to be separate from her. The occasional digressions into the more scientific and into far-future times pull the reader out of the here-and-now of the story. Jumping from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph puts the reader at a distance to both of those characters.
This style of writing allows the reader to know what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, and any of the past history or future ramifications. It gives the author the power to show anything they want, at any time. The cost of that power is the distance it puts between the reader and the characters and current action.
Lesson #3 — Don’t Break Your Own Rules
Auel makes it very clear that the Clan are people with traditions. In fact, they are trapped in those traditions. Their ancestral memory is such a guiding force that they cannot adapt to change. This is stated repeatedly. When Ayla joins the Clan, she is constantly going against their norms and traditions. It is the cause of almost all the conflict in the book.
Ayla talks, laughs, and cries, all strange things to the Clan, who feel emotion, but experience no physical tears or laughter, and rely on their very limited vocal capabilities to augment a much richer sign language. Ayla hates being subservient to the men of the Clan, a social structure supposedly easily accepted by the women of the Clan. She secretly teaches herself to use a weapon, something that is strictly forbidden to women by Clan tradition. She observes rituals that she should not see. These are things that the clan believes could bring down a sort of spiritual cataclysm on them. In short, by the end of the book, Ayla has completely upended the social and religious order of the Clan.
And yet, time and again, the repercussions are limited. The laws are modified. The punishments are made less severe. The supposedly unadaptable Clan adapts constantly to her presence.
That’s a perfectly fine story structure. It’s a classic “stranger comes to town” style of plot. But it doesn’t make sense to draw so much attention to the Clan’s built-in unchageability when the rest of the story is going to go on and show them adapting every step of the way.
Lesson #4 — Characters Need Goals
Ayla certainly does a lot throughout the book. She is constantly in the midst of conflicts. This action and conflict drives the story. However, there were several points were I got the sense that the story just wasn’t going anywhere. What I eventually realized was that I didn’t know what Ayla wanted.
Most of the conflicts that come up are due to Ayla acting impulsively — doing something without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes she’s completely unaware that there will be a problem. Almost none of it involves her choosing a goal and acting in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the only instance I can think of is when she flees the Clan in order to protect her baby, which she believes they will force her to kill (it looks like her, rather than a Neanderthal baby, and is thus considered “deformed”). I don’t think it’s coincidence that these chapters were the most compelling portion of the book for me.
The other characters are also mostly lacking in goals and desires. They could mostly be boiled down to “support the status quo,” or “help Ayla with all this trouble she’s in.” There are two exceptions.
First is the leader of the Clan, Brun, who wants to be a good leader and take care of his tribe. He is often the one who has to make hard decisions about the conflicts around Ayla, and always tries to do what is best for the tribe.
Second is Broud, the son of Brun. He is the most goal-oriented character in the book. His goal is to make Ayla’s life a living hell.
Lesson #5 — Give Villains Some Good Qualities
The clear villain of the book is Broud. As a child, Ayla ends up stealing some of his thunder at an important Clan ceremony. From that point onward, he takes everything she does as a slight. Interestingly, because he hates her so much, he is the one member of the Clan who is completely intolerant of her transgressions, while the others come to accept her.
Broud is essentially the cave-man version of the 1980s “asshole jock” movie archetype. He’s selfish. Everything he does is to honor himself and gain status. The only thing he fears is his status being diminished, and only because it might prevent him from eventually becoming the leader of the Clan. He is not only cruel, but derives sadistic pleasure from that cruelty. He shows no particular love for his family or those who ally themselves with him.
The climactic end of the book comes when Broud is made leader of the clan, at which point he becomes a literal maniac, screaming and ranting. Without the looming threat of his father blocking his ascension to the throne, he immediately does everything he can think of to hurt Ayla. When Ayla and the others complain, he forces the Clan shaman to essentially excommunicate her, a spiritual punishment that the Clan views as literal death.
It’s certainly easy to manufacture conflict with a character like this, but it feels like such a caricature. Sure, he’s easy to hate. That’s his only purpose. But couldn’t he have loved his family as more than just status symbols? Couldn’t he have actually wanted to make his father proud? Couldn’t he have had some redeeming features to make him feel human?
I know plenty of people who love villains like this, so it still comes down to personal taste. I’d rather see a villain who is understandable and relatable. A villain that, were the story shown from a slightly different perspective, might look more like a hero.
Every Book Has Lessons
Even though The Clan of the Cave Bear wasn’t for me, I don’t consider it a bad book or regret reading it. I think the language of pop media criticism has become really, unfortunately black-and-white, where people talk about books, movies or music as being good or bad. We all have our own tastes, and a book that might be great for someone else just won’t hit right for me. Criticism is about justifying your opinion about art, and even a justified opinion is still just an opinion. From an author’s perspective, that’s nice, because it means readers may dislike some or all of your book, without making it a “bad book.”
In any case, I learned a lot from The Clan of the Cave Bear. By thinking about the things I didn’t like, I can work on excising those from my own work. It was useful to see a perspective on writing a story set in pre-history, and I have no doubt that it will influence me as I continue to work on Razor Mountain.