I suspect that Jean M. Auel disappointed quite a few readers with The Shelters of Stone, the fifth book her EARTH’S CHILDREN series. It appeared 12 years after The Plains of Passage and does little other than repeating all that has gone before. While I didn’t think it was as dreadful as the final book, The Land of Painted Caves, it’s most certainly not the highlight of my reading year.
After a year long trek across Europe, Alya and Jondalar finally arrive at the home of his people, where they plan to mate and settle. Ayla is apprehensive about meeting his people. She worries they may not accept her and wonders if it was a mistake to leave the Mamutoi who have adopted her. She quickly finds her place among the Zelandonii though. Her unusual background and talents gain her the attention of Zelandonii, the people’s spiritual leader who intends to induct her into the mysteries of the great mother. Ayla doesn’t just make friends, however. The speed with which she gains the attention of the high status members of the Zelandonii gains her enemies as well.
Jondalar’s people occupy what is today a part of France, more specifically the Dordogne. The region is well known for its prehistoric sites and from the way Auel descibes in, it must have been very densely populated by the standards of the time. I visited the region when I was a child — I think it was the summer of 1984 but I might be a year off. One of the places we visited was Lascaux, famous for its cave paintings. Back then the original paintings were already closed to the public to prevent them from further deteriorating but we did see the replicas in Lascaux II. I also remember seeing some of the overhanging cliffs that serve as a shelter for the Zelandonii. As usual Auel’s research has been meticulous, even if she is stuck with some of her earlier choices regarding Neanderthals in particular, that by the time this novel was published were already outdated. I probably would look at the landscape with different eyes if I visit this region again. Not everybody is enamored with Auel’s tendency to describe landscapes in detail, but she does have an eye for it.
One of the things that seriously annoyed me in this series as a whole is how much human development and technological advances come together in Ayla and Jondalar. The list of their inventions and discoveries is much too long to be plausible and I suspect that Auel took some liberties with the archaeological record. Fortunately Auel manages to limit herself to just one in this novel. She has Ayla discover the Lascaux caves. The paintings that have been found there are several thousand years younger than the time Ayla’s story is set in, so I didn’t really see the need for it. I guess we should be grateful she didn’t paint them herself.
Most of the book is not about prehistoric life though, it is about status. Like among the Mamutoi, status is important among the Zelandonii. Jondalar is a high status male, son of a leader, attractive, talented and well connected. For Ayla to be suitable mate, she should match him. High status almost comes naturally to Ayla. She is, after all, practically perfect in every way. The challenges to her position mostly come from people who are jealous of her — low status men or women who desire something she has. They never really pose a serious challenge in this novel. As much as I disliked The Mammoth Hunters, at least Auel managed to create tension within the Lion Camp generated by her presence.
With so many people meeting Ayla for the first time, every significant event in her life up to that point is rehashed in this novel. Some events several times. Auel seems to think that because she took twelve years to write this novel, the reader will have forgotten all about Ayla. Take out the repetition and the superfluous introduction rituals and there is enough plot left to fill only a novella. With so much emphasis on Ayla’s position in Zelandonii society, the focus of the novel also shifts away a bit from topics such as ice age ecology and techniques of survival in the paleolithic. While a lot of readers feel the detailed descriptions of everyday life are tiresome, they are much more the strength of this series than dialogues or the petty drama Auel puts into her story.
Auel achieves very little in The Shelters of Stone. The only thing she does manage in this 750 page doorstopper is to convince Ayla she belongs among the spiritual elite of the Zelandonii, and that puts her in a position to force the loss of innocence (or, in less cryptic terms, the realization that sex and reproduction are linked) described in The Land of Painted Caves on these unfortunate hunter-gatherers. Ayla brings change; she is like a storm waiting to break loose, but it doesn’t happen in this book. In fact, Auel would need many more pages to get to that point. With a little better plotting it might have been worth reading but, as it is, The Shelters of Stone is mostly filler. The only thing that saves it from being the worst in the series is that Auel manages to outdo herself in in the final volume. It’s very sad to see a series that started with such a special novel as The Clan of the Cave Bear sink to these depths in the final volumes.