Good Reading : April 2011
APRIL 2011 ı goodreading 11 cover story 'Her book was a catalyst for me,' Jean explains. 'Reading at home ceased to be enough. I wanted to be a person. I wanted to do something myself. And her book convinced me that I could be whatever I wanted to be.' Jean took night classes in maths and physics while working for many years at a Portland electronics plant. She started at the plant as a keypunch operator, working her way up in the company to the positions of circuit board designer, technical writer and credit manager. In 1976, at the age of 40, Jean ear ned her MBA from the University of Portland. Shortly after getting her MBA Jean quit her job at the electronics plant. For a few months she didn't know what she was going to do. Then one night early in 1977 an idea for a short story came into her mind. 'It was a story of a girl who was living with people who were different from her -- less advanced. I knew I was thinking prehistory. But these people were looking at her as though she was different. I thought that was an interesting twist. I wondered -- could I write that story?' Three years later Jean published the first book in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, in which we first meet Ayla, the heroine who features throughout the series. She is a Cro- Magnon, the earliest known type of moder n human found in Europe. Orphaned by an earthquake, the five-year-old wanders alone in the forest. She eventually encounters a group of Neanderthals -- a now extinct species of human -- who reluctantly take her into heir clan. Ayla's unfamiliar blond hair and blue eyes disconcert the Neanderthals. Over the following 31 years Jean published another five books, which continued the story of Ayla, telling of her expulsion from the Neanderthal clan; her wandering in search of her own people; her meeting with the handsome Jondalar, with whom she establishes a elationship; and their return o Jondalar's homeland in what s now France. The sixth and final book n the series, The Land of Painted Caves, continues the story of Ayla, Jondalar and their daughter Jonayla. The eponymous painted cave is based on the famous Lascaux Cave in southern France, which Jean -- not surprisingly -- has also visited in her research. Now that she's at the end of the series, Jean suspects hat she will miss her heroine. 'This is a world I've lived with for 30 years,' Jean said. 'Ayla's like a friend. She's someone I know more intimately than I know a lot of my good friends.' The 'Earth's Children' books have preoccupied Jean for her entire writing life. But she has no plans to give up writing yet, despite coming to the end of the series. She speculates that she could write historical fiction or science fiction, but will probably continue to explore the prehistoric eras. 'What made us go from hunter- gatherers to far mers?' Jean asks. 'Why did we suddenly decide to put seeds in the ground rather than harvest what the earth provided? Or domesticate animals rather than hunt them? That would be a book on the Neolithic period of 5000 to 10 000 years ago. I also think the whole Egyptian story would be fascinating to write about. What were the forces that caused a nation to first come together that still exists after thousands of years?' Egypt? Isn't that where, in ancient times, those engaged in funerary practices would extract the brains of a corpse through its nose? It's suddenly becoming clear why Jean Auel would really enjoy her hands- on research, should she ever decide to write about Egypt. The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel is published by Hodder & Stoughton, r rp $49.95.