The Plains of Passage | Critical Review by Margot Hornblower

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Plains of Passage.
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Critical Review by Margot Hornblower

SOURCE: "Queen of the Ice Age Romance," in Time, Vol. 136, No. 17, October 22, 1990, p. 88.

In the following review, Hornblower comments favorably on the "Earth's Children" series, but finds some elements of the most recent novel, The Plains of Passage, to be implausible.

In the musty chill of the Dordogne, 30 ft. below ground, giant bulls, painted in red and black, gallop across undulating walls. Nearby, a cavalcade of horses, ibex, tiny deer and cave lions dances along the curves of rough limestone. Are these soaring images sacred or profane? A large bespectacled woman closes her eyes and sighs in wonder. She imagines a time, perhaps 20,000 years ago, when rituals were performed in this same hidden cave in the flickering light of animal-fat lamps. Slowly, tears stream down her cheeks. "It's like a church," she whispers. "You feel you can understand the people who painted this."

Few have tried harder than Jean Auel, the Oregon chronicler of Ice Age romance, to fathom the mysteries of Cro-Magnon life. From her 1980 best seller, The Clan of the Cave Bear, through three popular sequels, including the just-published The Plains of Passage, Auel has fleshed out the stone-and-bone discoveries of archaeology to create a fully realized world for her prehistoric heroine, Ayla. In the latest 757-page volume, Ayla sets forth from her home among the Mammoth Hunters of the Eurasian steppes and, braving blizzards, a locust swarm and a fall into a glacier crevasse, reaches what is now the Dordogne, in southwest France. The region harbors a rich trove of Upper Paleolithic remains, including the mystically painted caverns. The Lascaux cave "overwhelms me," Auel says. "These weren't dumb savages."

Prehistory is not only Auel's passion: it has proved improbably profitable. A former credit manager at a Portland electronics firm, the mother of five, then 40, had never written a word of fiction when the idea for an Ice Age epic popped into her head in 1977. From an outline scribbled at the kitchen table grew a publishing phenomenon. The first three books have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 18 languages. The Plains of Passage, Auel's first book since 1985, has a 1.4 million-copy advance sale. Crown Publishers has reportedly paid Auel about $25 million for Plains and two yet-to-be-written volumes completing the saga.

The further escapades of Ayla and her blond boyfriend, Jondalar the toolmaker, are set in the Dordogne, where Auel has been exploring caves and sifting dirt on an archaeological dig. "I found some pieces of flint and a reindeer milk tooth," she says proudly, as she huffs up a path to an Ice Age rock shelter. Far below, a narrow valley is bathed in mist. On a forested bluff, a medieval fortress glows in pale yellow light. "The vegetation was different then," she says. "But I need to know the lay of the land, where the ridges are, where the high points are, so I can move my characters through here."

A few days later, a French archaeologist guides Auel through Laugerie Haute, a vast excavation site under a cliff. She asks for details about how hearths were spaced, seeking hints on how families may have guarded their privacy. "This will be Jondalar's apartment building," she says. At Font-de-Gaume, a grotto of magnificent prehistoric artwork, she examines a painting of a wolf: "I have a feeling this will be Ayla's cave." It fits, since the adventurer travels with a wolf, albeit one she has trained to behave uncannily like a golden retriever.

Auel gets passing grades from archaeologists on how she interprets the facts. "We can tell you how the paintings were made, but not why," says American archaeologist Roy Larick. "Jean does as good a job at speculating as anyone else." Where knowledge falls short, ideology takes over. An ardent feminist, Auel makes a case for a matriarchal Cro-Magnon society, basing her theory on Upper Paleolithic female fertility figures known as Venuses. These statuettes with exaggerated breasts and buttocks have been found by the hundreds, whereas no male sexual symbols have been uncovered. "I'm trying to psych out an entire culture when all we have are bits and pieces to go on," she says. But of one thing she's sure: "It's wrong to think of our ancestors bopping women over the head and dragging them by the hair. Anthropologists have found that most hunter-gatherer societies are very equal."

Nonetheless, Ayla is a stereotyped wonderwoman: she stops a cave lion's attack with the wave of her hand, learns languages in minutes and uses birth control before anyone else even knows how babies are conceived. In The Clan of the Cave Bear, fact and fiction were plausibly balanced. But Plains verges on the ludicrous as Ayla expounds on clitoral vs. vaginal orgasm and rescues Jondalar from manhating Amazons. And much of Plains reads like a textbook: page after page listing animals and plants. The archaeology may be accurate, but stilted dialogue and "his-loins-ached-with-need" sex scenes are alternately hilarious and pathetic.

By and large, Auel has succeeded in popularizing a misperceived period. Nonetheless, even she may sense that her prehistoric cash cow may be overmilked. "Ayla's good company, but after a while you want to write about something else," she says. Then Auel is likely to make an important discovery of her own: whether her fans will remain loyal once the glaciers recede.

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This section contains 897 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Margot Hornblower
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