Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Back to the Stone Age

In 'Shelters of Stone,' Auel meticulously re-creates prehistoric world

By Ann Hicks, ahicks@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everyone is nervous. The people gathered on the limestone ledge. The tall man with the piercing blue eyes who has ridden into view on a stallion. The blond woman riding the mare. The skittish wolf traveling with the couple.

        The man, Jondalar, has much to tell his people. He has been gone for five years. His brother died during the journey. The strange woman with him, Ayla, saved Jondalar's life.

        The two of them traveled for a year to reach this place, home of his people, the Zelandonii. He wants Ayla to meet his mother, sister, brother — everyone. He intends to formally mate Ayla in a few weeks at the summer Matrimonial.

        The people are nervous because they have never seen tame animals. Jondalar discovered many things these past five years and is anxious to share what he learned.

        Ayla loves Jondalar and is expecting a child. But she is worried that she will not be accepted.

        @subHed:End of a long wait
       @colText:One hundred and twenty-two pages later, Jondalar and an exhausted Ayla crawl into their sleeping furs to spend their first night with his family.

        So begins The Shelters of Stone, the much anticipated fifth installment of Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series. The book, which arrives in stores today, is a lumbering, meticulous account of life among these prehistoric people.

        Fans may be as nervous as the book's characters; after all, they have been waiting 12 years for Ms. Auel to wrap this one up. They needn't worry. Ms. Auel is as interesting and detailed as ever.

        As usual, she covers a lot. We learn that a “cave” refers to a group of people, not a place, and there are dozens of them. The Zelandonii live in cliffs beneath huge limestone shelves (thus the title). Wooden frames covered with decorated hides separate their living spaces.

        Ms. Auel describes the terrain — the rivers, woodlands and wildlife — and Zelandonii habits. Their spirituality, clothing, diet, cooking utensils, the animals they hunt, hunting techniques, healing methods — even how they deal with waste.

        The author delves into Ayla's past (the subject of the four previous books) as Ayla tells Jondalar's family about herself: her separation from her people during an earthquake, life and eventual banishment from the Clan of the Cave Bear, her life in the valley where she found and raised the cave lion who would injure Jondalar and kill his brother, how she came to ride her mare.

        So you needn't have read the previous books to catch up — and those who have will be happy for the review, because it has been 22 years since the first book in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was published.

        The story spans about a year, but it isn't until half-way (just several weeks later), that the Zelandonii even leave for their Summer Meeting.

        There are plenty of subplots as Ayla settles into her new home. Jondalar's jealous ex-girlfriend plays a mean trick on Ayla. A man is trampled in a hunt, which offers Ayla an opportunity to use her considerable healing skills. The summer camp experience and their mating customs are described.

        Ms. Auel never lets us confuse her characters. Because formal, lengthy introductions are the custom, they are repeated throughout the 720-page book. But it does get tedious (even to the Zelandonii) as they recite greetings over and over: Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, and Protected by the Cave Bear. More titles are added as the story progresses and her status changes.

        Two storylines stand out, and may hint of what's to come in volume six, which Ms. Auel is said to be working on:

        • Ayla's immediate connection with the Zelandonii's spiritual leader and healer. The First, as she is called, sees great potential in Ayla and senses that the woman with the exotic accent should be one of them.

        • Ayla's former Clan, who are hated by many and referred to by the Zelandonii and others as flatheads, a term that Ayla resents. Ayla and Jondalar learned on their journey that Clan territory had been stolen. The Zelandonii leaders suspect they need to accept these people and make peace but it won't be easy.

        Will Ayla become a spiritual leader or will she be satisfied to be mate and mother? Will she come across the son she left with the Clan several years before? How long will it take to publish book six?

        It doesn't matter. Ms. Auel's books are worth the wait. Fans of this series are patient — they know that her attention to detail is a tremendous challenge, and that writing about life 35,000 years ago involves a great deal of travel and research.


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