The Plains of Passage.
Jean M. Auel.
760 pages. $24.95.
All right, enough about Ayla and Jondalar.
I want to read the Jean Marie Auel story.
While many writers of historical fiction might rely on little more than their imaginations, their trusty word processors and their library cards, Ms. Auel, the method actress of American literature, has immersed herself to an unprecedented degree in the landscape and lives of her Paleolithic protagonists. Turning her back on an MBA and a banking career, she has built and slept in her own ice cave, knapped flint to make spear heads, tanned hides with mashed deer brains and gathered herbs from the Russian steppes. She's a marvel. She deserves her own movie.
So why, with such a trustworthy guide to the territory, did I find "The Plains of Passage," the fourth installment in the "Earth's Children" series, so absolutely unconvincing?
Possibly because it's all background. The author has reconstructed the Ice Age for us, to be sure; hundreds of pages of prose have been devoted to animal behavior (including a pretty gamy mammoth mating), the medicinal properties of plants, the geological formation of the glacial landscape and so forth. But she never manages to flesh out believeably the bones of her Cro-Magnon heroes.
The protagonist is, once again, Ayla, the blond orphan who is adopted by a Neanderthal clan in "Clan of the Cave Bear," finds independence and love in "The Valley of Horses," and makes a life with her own kind in "The Mammoth Hunters." "The Plains of Passage" chronicles her yearlong journey with her lover, Jondalar, to his homeland in what is now France.
In her research, Ms. Auel discovered that Paleolithic people were not the "primitive" knuckle-draggers of popular imagination, but had a surprisingly sophisticated culture and technology -- well delineated in "The Mammoth Hunters" -- and probably a rich emotional life, too.
But in her creation of Ayla and Jondalar, the author doth protest too much. These people not only are advanced, but are already at the pinnacle of evolution. How could mankind do any better than Ayla, who is intelligent, resourceful, physically powerful, a skilled physician and gorgeous? And hunky Jondalar is not only terrific in the "sleeping furs," he's 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Maybe Ms. Auel did see a Cro-Magnon skeleton of those dimensions, but I still don't buy it.
And they are one-dimensionally virtuous: a few wise, measured words from Ayla, and rapists repent their crimes, Neanderthal-haters learn tolerance. Our heroes leave each community they visit richer for their skills and compassion, not to mention all their swell inventions, such as the sewing needle and the fire-starter.
Because of this, the episodes dealing with the couple's interactions with other people have little dramatic conflict. In fact, they resemble nothing so much as that most perennial of mythic motifs: hero rides into village, rights all wrongs and leaves, to be enshrined in legend. (Who was that blond woman in the fur parka? I wanted to thank her.)
But all too often they are alone on the plains, where nature is the only enemy. And -- for us, not them -- boredom. Yes, there is a fair share of peril here, as our heroes cross raging rivers, survive landslides and make their way across a melting icecap. One magazine reviewer compared these adventures favorably with Indiana Jones'. But this book is less thriller than travelogue, and over the course of 760 pages, moves with the speed of a glacier.