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The Shelters of Stone    by Jean Auel order for
Shelters of Stone
by Jean Auel
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Bantam, 2003 (2002)
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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

At last Jean Auel has published the fifth book in her widely popular Earth's Children series! It has been twelve years since the fourth entry in the saga of Ayla and her companions of 30-40,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe and Central Asia. In 1980, Auel opened up a whole new area of historical fiction and proved that readers were eager to learn about the lives of prehistoric peoples. Auel has a reputation for doing her research and the books abound with details of everyday prehistoric life, based on information available in the archaeological literature. To get the facts right, the author has worked with renowned experts such as Jean Clottes (the French archaeologist responsible for prehistoric caves including the recently discovered Chauvet Cave), and along with her husband, generously funds ongoing research. However, Auel is very skillful at breathing life into the facts and putting flesh on the bare bones of academic knowledge. Many people (I am one of them) have visited the Dordogne region after they fell in love with Ayla and the time period in the Auel books.

This latest episode is set in the Dordogne Valley region of France where many of the famous caves such as Lascaux and Font de Gaume are located, along with the site of the first identified Cro Magnon remains. These 'shelters of stone' are set into the limestone cliffs on either side of the Dordogne's smaller rivers in southwestern France. At the beginning, Ayla and her love Jondalar have finished their long trek across central Europe and arrived in Jondalar's home village to live with his Zelandoni people. As a stranger with a foreign accent developed during her upbringing with the 'flatheads' or 'Clan' (i.e. Neanderthals), Ayla is an outsider. Also, her travelling companions (two horses and a large wolf which she has tamed) scare the village people. However, most soon accept Ayla as the future mate of their leader's son and begin to appreciate her skills in healing.

As someone who has always been an outsider, first when she was raised by Neanderthals after losing her family in an earthquake and now in Jondalar's village, Ayla is drawn to others on the fringe. Some of the best moments in the book occur when she helps underdogs such as the boy with a deformed arm or the young girl (whose mother is an alcoholic) struggling to take care of younger children. However, there are flaws, even for a devoted fan such as myself. Auel has the unfortunate tendency (common to many writers of historical fiction) of falling in love with their research material and wanting to include all of it in the book. The result is that Ayla often becomes an omniscient observer of all aspects of Upper Paleolithic life. This gives the reader a good picture of everyday life, but can also be in just too much detail and an irritating digression from the narrative flow. In addition, Auel often portrays prehistoric life as the utopian ideal with everything in harmony with nature, equality between the sexes and even full acceptance of homosexual couples. It's a nice picture, but how realistic is it really?

The book is very long (749 pages!) and does not have a strong sense of drama.There is some minor excitement such as skirmishes with the few village troublemakers, dangerous hunting trips and Ayla's inner turmoil as she decides whether to accept the responsibilities inherent in becoming a spiritual leader and healer. But the novel basically describes life from Ayla and Jondalar's spring arrival in his village, through the Summer Meeting of all the cave groups in the area, to the following winter when Ayla gives birth. All this said, I really love Ayla as a character. She is possibly the first feminist in the best sense of that word, fully capable in so many ways, but also very in touch with her own feelings and her desire to be part of a family. Auel has said there will be just one more book in the saga and I, like countless others, will eagerly await it.

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