Please, give a warm, wet welcome to Shelf Pleasuring, an occasional feature where we give a looky-loo at the books we stole off your parents' shelves when they weren't looking. For our inaugural column, Fine Lines proprietrix, blogger, NPR book reviewer and filthy-novel-fiend Lizzie Skurnick looks again at Jean M. Auel's 1980 novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, where young Ayla (it's AY-la, not EYE-la, I looked it up) learns that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens do a lot more around the fire than roast aurochs.
Somewhere around my 80th reading of By the Shores of Silver Lake, I halted on a scene that, after waxing rhapsodic on sparkling glass panes wrapped in brown paper and a clean-smelling, yellow pine floor freshly scoured with sand, lingered inordinately on the matter of the new straw ticking for Ma and Pa's bed. The cause of the halt was the revelation that, though it was placed behind a curtain, the bed was crowded in the room with not only the coal stove freshly covered with blacking and the brindle bulldog, Jack, but three daughters all blessed with perfect hearing, crackling on their own straw ticking. By this point in the scene, Ma had sunk, sighing with pleasure, into her new bed and was pronouncing it divine. "Mom," I asked (my Mom was good about stuff like this) "MOM. Do you think they had sex that night?"
"Oh, absolutely!" my mother said. (Told you she was good about stuff like this.)
It's unsurprising that a series that engages so profoundly with the sensual in the ordinary life-butter thickly clotting, fish violently flopping, cotton palpably stiffening-might at some point arouse in the young reader the revelation that its characters were probably clotting, flopping and stiffening along with their visual accoutrement, but obviously, Wilder was unable, for numerous reasons, moral and cultural, to really follow through on this. And that's where authors like Jean M. Auel come in.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first of the "Earth's Children" quartet, is the story of Ayla, a four-year-old Homo sapien girl who, after a dreadful earthquake, loses her family and almost dies, until she is rescued by the Neanderthal medicine woman, Iza, one of the Clan of the Cave Bear. On a line-by-line, chapter-by-chapter view, The Clan of the Cave Bear is the pinnacle of dawn-of-mankind porn-leather thongs, bison, chewed roots, cozy fires over the hearth-with a riot of detailed explication that makes the simple butter-churning passages of Wilder look like a phone book. (When you launch with a taxonomy of the different fibers used to absorb baby shit, you win by default immediately.) However, on a large scale, The Clan of the Cave Bear is much more: a novel of a dying breed set up against a new one, but, more important, how gender relations lie at the heart of this changing world.
And Ayla, a gangly, blonde, sky-eyed child stuck with the wrong race, is the avatar for all this tumult. Auel immediately makes us aware of the lowly position of women in the Clan: Iza has to kneel before Brun, the leader-as all women do when approaching a man-to plead her case about keeping the girl. While thinking it over, he ruminates, "But medicine woman or not, she's just a woman. What difference will it make if she's upset?" which pretty much sums up the position of women in the clan, who walk softly and carry sticks to dig roots while the men carry big spears and can beat them, have sex with them or treat them equally, as they choose.
Auel's position on all this is not to condemn entirely, as she explains that the Neanderthals lack of capacity for change, which allows them to retain the memory of the entire race in one person, is also how nature has decided to let them survive. Men hunt because they always hunted, women know roots because they always did, and it's awesome because you don't have to reinvent the wheel - which in fact hasn't been invented at all - every time a new generation is born.
But Ayla upsets this whole apple cart. Apparently, the Others - the Clan's name for the Homo sapiens new on the scene - are different. The Mog-Ur, the great spiritual leader, Iza's brother and eventually recalls how an Other man that lived with them once was different - he liked to talk to men and women, and had great respect for the medicine woman, on par with that for the men. First off, Ayla, mauled by a cave lion, has the totem of that powerful beast, which makes the tribe worry that she can't have children, since "they would fight off the impregnating essence" of a man with a weaker totem. (Plan T!) She quickly surpasses Mog-Ur in simple math when he decides to show her number one day. She sees the men playing with slingshots and learns to hunt, a crime punishable by death to the Clan. And, over and over again, because she has been lucky for the Clan, she is forgiven these crimes and they are incorporated into their lives-to the head-splitting rage of the tribe leader's son, Broud.
BROUD! Omigod, BROUD! There's just no way anyone good is named Broud. Spoiled, swaggering, petulant and, you know, proud, braggart Broud has hated Ayla ever since she stole his thunder at his first hunt ceremony by being given the cave lion totem. The more of a man's rights she is given, the more enraged Broud is - especially as the elders of the Clan respect her increasing worth to the tribe as both a hunter and skilled medicine woman as much as or more as they respect him.
And here's where the sex comes in! I don't have to tell you, all the sexual stuff in The Clan of the Cave Bear is kind of horribs, since Auel, in this first work, hasn't quite yet realized she can have fun with the sex stuff too, as she did in the epic all-Homo sapien 20-page sex scene where Ayla loses her "virginity" (more on that in a sec) to Jondular in Valley of the Horses or all the fur-covered rutting and breast-baring happening in The Mammoth Hunters, where Ayla is torn between Jondular and Ranec, a kind of Paleolithic Obama with ties to both Africa and Asia, insofar as those land-masses were happening. And the ladies with red-tinged feet, who are high slatterns of the temple. ANYWAY!
Most horribly, and most pertinently, Ayla is brought low just as she's reached the crest of her status in the tribe and her sexual development:
The Woman Who Hunts earned the full title during the winter that began her tenth year. Iza felt a private satisfaction and a small sense of relief when she noticed the changes in the girl that heralded the onset of menarche. Ayla's spreading hips and the two bumps swelling her chest, changing the contours of her child's straight body, assured the medicine woman that her unusual daughter was not doomed to a life in permanent childhood after all. Swelling nipples and a light sprinkling of pubic and underarm hair were followed by Ayla's first menstrual flow; the first time the spirit of her totem battled with another.
Ayla understood now that it was unlikely she would ever give birth; her totem was too strong...
Not so fast, Ayla. Unfortunately, babies are not actually made by the battling of random tribe totems, but you're going to figure that out anyway, because you're a Homo sapien and your brain is capable of intuitive leaps based on observable data, but anyway. Broud? You were saying?
He looked around, the down at the woman sitting at his feet, waiting with unruffled composure for him to get on with his rebuke and be on his way. She's worse than ever since she became a Woman, he thought....What can I make her do?....Wait, she's a woman now, isn't she? There's something I can make her do.
Broud gave her a signal, and Ayla's eyes flew open. It was unexpected. Iza told her men only wanted that from women they considered attractive; she knew Broud thought she was ugly....He signaled her again, imperiously, to assume the position so he could relieve his needs, the position for sexual intercourse...
Ayla knew what was expected...Many young girls of the Clan were pierced by pubescent boys who lingered in the limbo of not-yet-men, before their first kill; and occasionally a man, beguiled by a young coquette pleased himself with a not-quite-ripe female...Within a society that indulged in sex as naturally as they breahted, Ayla was still a virgin.
The young woman felt awkward; she knew she must comply, but she was flustered and Broud was enjoying it. He was glad he had thought of it; he had finally broken down her defenses. It excited him to see her so confused and bewildered, and aroused him...
Broud got impatient, pushed her down, and moved aside his wrap exposing his organ, thick and throbbing...She's so ugly, she should be honored, no other man would have her, he thought angrily, grabbing at his wrap to move it out of the way as his need grew....
But as Broud closed in on her, something snapped. She couldn't do it! She just couldn't. Her reason left her. It didn't matter that she was supposed to obey him. She scrambled to her feet and started to run. Broud was too quick for her. He grabbed her, pushed her down, and punched her in the face, cutting her lip with his hard fist. He was beginning to enjoy this. Too many times had he restrained himself when he wanted to beat her, but there was no one to stop him here. And he had justifiable reason-she was disobeying him, actively disobeying him...
She was nearly unconscious when he threw her over on her face, feverishly ripped her wrap aside, and spread her legs. With one hard thrust, he penetrated deeply. She screamed with pain. It added to his pleasure. He lunged again, drawing forth another painful cry, then again, and again. The intensity of his excitement urged him on, rising quickly to unbearable peaks. With a last hard drive that extracted a final agonized scream, he ejected his built up heat.
Well! Smell you, Nancy Drew! That is where Dawn-of-mankind porn slips right into PORN, I guess-which is probably a good 85% of why THIS STUFF IS COMPLETELY ADDICTING. (You don't really get any kinkier than human/Neanderthal sex.) But I do think you can differentiate the books from other fur-wrap-rippers by the fact that The Clan of the Cave Bear is not only about some overheated welter where both the earth and the beings upon it rumble with ecstasy and agony and split on a regular basis. On a fundamental level, it's about sex not for sex's sake but for how it interacts with our lives - how Ayla suffers to keep the baby that results from Broud's raping her and her status as hunter as medicine woman, and how, in the next few novels, she strives to find a partner not only of her own kind, but of her own kind-an equal partner that appreciates Ayla the species and Ayla the woman. As the novel ends, Brun berates Broud for having brought chaos and dishonor to the Clan by his treatment of Ayla: "She was a woman, and she had more courage than you, Broud, more determination, more self-control. She was more man that you are. Ayla should have been the son of my mate." Doesn't quite have the ring of "Like a fish needs a bicycle," but a good Dawn-of-Mankind start nonetheless.
Related: The Clan Of The Cave Bear