Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Plains of Passage - Jean M. Auel

The literary quality of Auel's The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters, the second and third volume in her Earth's Children series, left something to be desired to put it mildly, so I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue this series of reviews. I've always had a soft spot for The Plains of Passage, the fourth volume, and since I recently came across an English language version (this is one of the few novels I've read both in English and Dutch translation) I decided to go ahead and reread it. My recent read of Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman may also have something to do with it. The novels share a setting during the ice age, if little else.

After a difficult year among the Mamutoi, the Mammoth hunters, Ayla has decided Jondalar is the man for her and that if it takes crossing the continent to travel to his home is the price for being with him, she is willing to pay it. In early summer they set out on their journey. Knowing he is unlikely ever to travel that far again, Jondalar opts for the longer route that will have them follow the Donau, the Great Mother river for most of its length. It is his last chance to see his kin among the Sharamudoi people living on it's banks. Their journey will take them a full year and exposes them to every danger the unforgiving ice age environment has to offer.

The Plains of Passage can be accused of just about everything that bothered me in the previous two books. Ayla is still a Mary Sue. Fortunately, traveling doesn't give her too much time to invent new stuff although she does make a few steps in domesticating wolves. She does find the time to become fluent in three more languages despite spending weeks at most with the peoples in question. Her abilities win her admiration and several invitations to stay permanently. Despite this universal worship of her supreme abilities she still fears being rejected by Jondalar's people and is on the verge of asking Jondalar to stay with one of the peoples they meet along the way.

The repetitions that mar the later books in particular are also very present in this novel. With every new group Ayla is exposed to there is an endless string of formal introductions, disbelieve over her control of their animal companions and admiration for the inventions Ayla and Jondalar bring. After that, we usually find out what challenge is facing this particular community and what Ayla can do to fix it. Once the the proper steps are taken to fix the problem, Ayla and Jondalar are of to continue their journey. Another repetitive element in the story are the many graphic sex scenes. Personally it doesn't bother me, but in this book the scene where a young girl watching Jondalar and Ayla go at it helps her to overcome a gang rape was a bit too much for me.

Jondalar and Ayla also battle their personal demons during their journey. As mentioned before, it is her fear of rejection for Ayla. Jondalar struggles with an equally unlikely issue. He is afraid that the Great Mother won't find him worthy to create children of his spirit. He still refuses to believe in Ayla's theory linking sex and procreation and the uncertainty about whether or not he'll have offspring drives him to seek the aid of a holy man they meet along the way. He even goes so far as to try and get Ayla to have sex with another man. Given the story I guess it is consistent but it had me roll my eyes anyway.

There is plenty of about this novel I find extremely unlikely, incredibly annoying or outright ridiculous but there are a few aspects that appeal to me. As usual, Auel has done her homework. The novel contains rich descriptions of the ice age landscape and ecology. Some may find them boring or repetitive. For me, the way she describes the landscape is very interesting indeed. Some elements do turn up time and again but she has done a good job in describing the various landscapes her main characters travel through. The place might have been a bit colder than it is today, ecologically it was diverse if you know how to look at them. Picture yourself standing on the banks of the river, somewhere north of Belgrade where the Tisza river joins the Donau, trying to imagine what the place looked like some 30,000 years ago. It is quite a feat of the imagination, especially when you consider Auel describes a journey of several thousand miles this way. For some reason Jondalar's journey east in The Valley of the Horses lacked that kind of refined understanding of the environment he was traveling through.

Archaeological finds have also inspired Auel. A number of the artifacts described in the novel are based on archaeological finds. There is a big difference between the archaeological and ecological sides of this story in that the archaeological evidence is usually incomplete and lacking context. Auel built her story of people worshiping the Great Earth Mother around it and we have no way of knowing if it is anywhere near reality. In fact, I suspect she is wildly of the mark in many respects. Still, someone with an appreciation of prehistoric art and artifacts will enjoy these details in the book. Educated guesses and speculation about how these objects fitted into everyday life are part of what makes prehistory fascinating in my opinion.

The thing that most appealed to me when I first read this novel was the fact that at the heart of it, is an epic journey. It's something of a Fantasy cliche really, but one that remains quite popular. There is something about people being reduced to the basics with only their skill and ingenuity between them and disaster that makes for an appealing story. In that sense, the novel works better than Ayla facing impossible odds in The Valley of the Horses or the high school drama that fills The Mammoth Hunters.

Does that mean it's a good book? No, not really. The novel just has too many flaws for that. At best, I'd call it a guilty pleasure. It's a book that at a rational level, could be burnt to the ground in a review without requiring any great effort from the reviewer. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for it. I don't think I would have bothered with The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves without enjoying this book at some level. It is still more than a few steps down from The Clan of the Cave Bear however. The tragedy of this series is that Auel never managed to come close to the level she reached in the opening volume. Still, this minor step up was just enough to keep me going and even to convince me to reread the fifth book. I guess I will finish this series of reviews after all.

Book Details
Title: The Plains of Passage
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 868
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-28941-1
First published: 1990


  1. By this book I became a serial skimmer ... anything Auel started describing foliage I knew I could safely skip three pages. Such a shame that none of the sequels reached the level of awesomeness that was book one.

    1. That book is hard to equal but I certainly think Auel could have gotten more out of this series.