In 1977 writer Jean M. Auel began research for her first book, an evocative historical fiction novel which dramatically intersects the lives Neanderthals and Cro-magnon humans in prehistoric Europe.
"Clan of the Cave Bear", the cornerstone in the Earth Children series, tells the tale of a Cro-magnon orphan Ayla, who at five years old survives an earthquake and an attack from a cave lion before she is rescued by the kind and wise medicine woman Iza. Though Ayla's appearance is vastly different, and in the eyes of the Neanderthal clan even ugly, the young girl wins a place among the clan when the holy man and Mog-ur Creb decides her presence is in fact a good omen.
Leader Brun remains conflicted between the steadfast traditions his people have long relied upon for their survival versus the benefit of this strange new creature among them. Had the spirits, their totems, really sent this unusual child to them for "luck", even when everything she does inevitably challenges their philosophies and customs?
From the way she communicates to the way she expresses emotion, Ayla learns early on she must continue her struggle for survival by integrating with them and behaving as a Clan woman should, rather the ugly outsider she is. However having evolved past what her adopted people are able to do, this proves problematic for the earnest young girl.
Whereas her Clan relies on "memories" and instinct, she has the ability for analytical thought and deductive reasoning. Whereas her Clan adheres to strict tradition, Ayla is able to adapt and evolve. She finds herself unable to abide constrictive cultural expectations in her ever growing desire to challenge herself and to push herself to the limits of her ability.
For a group of people who rely on conformity for their sense of security and balance, she provides a constant source of conflict. This is especially true with Broud, Brun's son and leader to be. He resents her presence and does whatever he can to make her life miserable; longing to steal from her what he can never possess.
Ayla, in her attempt to survive her sometimes dire circumstances, ends up an unintentional hero for feminism itself. What the Clan see in her, and alternately fear in her, is the strength that will carry over in all Homo sapiens for millenniums to come. Her strange behavior, thoughts and feelings are the very things that ensure the survival of her race while highlighting the limitations of their own.
It is through this young child who ages no more than a teenager through the course of the novel that we once again are reminded of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Author Jean Auel herself demonstrates this spirit by the thoughtful and thorough way she researched for this groundbreaking series; not only did she do extensive study on the Ice Age but physically learned many of the survivalist skills she describes in her books.
It lends an authenticity to the tale that will keep the reader vested intellectually, while Ayla and her struggle to survive will emotionally engage audiences for years to come. Though the prehistoric world they live in is vastly different from our modern times, the themes are widely universal. From racism to sexism and cultural divisiveness and superstition, the dynamic characters of "Clan of the Cave Bear" speak a language in which we are all familiar.