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Jean M. Auel – The Shelters of Stone

May 9, 2011

Re-Read. The Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel (2002)
Earth’s Children, Book 5

Length: 896 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Originally Read: 20 August 2003
Re-Read Started: 17 April 2011
Re-Read Finished: 21 April 2011

Where did it come from? My shelves, and I think originally from Borders.
Why do I have it? Loved, loved, loved the first few Earth’s Children books.

Jondalar comes home
with a wife who advances
human history.

Summary: After traversing the length of the continent, Ayla and Jondalar have reached the land of his people, the Zelandonii. Jondalar’s been gone for five years on his Journey, so he’s glad to be home, but his family and the other members of his Cave are understandably wary about Ayla – she seems to have a strange magic over animals, she talks with a strange accent, and she’s intimidatingly self-possessed. While people – most people, anyways – eventually come to accept Ayla as one of their own, the Zelandoni – the spiritual leader – wants to take things even further… she thinks Ayla should be initiated into the group of Those Who Serve the Mother. But Ayla’s experiences with the spirit world have been enough for a lifetime; all she wants to do is be mated to Jondalar, and have his babies. Oh, and she also discovers the Lascaux Cave, and invents reproductive genetics and religious tolerance.

Review: By way of background, I read the first four Earth’s Children books over and over again as a teen. (Well, the first three; I would read The Plains of Passage occasionally, but it wasn’t a favorite.) Then, in 2002, The Shelters of Stone came out, and like any good fan, I bought it and devoured it… and then realized I didn’t like it all that much, put it on the shelf, and haven’t touched it again until now. I decided to re-read it in anticipation of picking up The Land of Painted Caves (because I am nothing if not a completist), but I’m sad to report that my opinion of it hasn’t much changed in the intervening 8 years since I first read it.

The problem? Nothing happens. Seriously: Nothing happens. I was talking to a friend who also read it 5+ years ago, and her recollection of the book was “they get to Jondalar’s home, Ayla has his baby, and then she challenges the head priest lady, right?” She’s absolutely right, and that really does sum up the plot of the book. However, of the three events that she mentioned, the first one happens on page 1, and the other two happen within 50 pages of the end. The intervening 800 pages go something like this:

Ayla is introduced to someone new. New person is wary about being so near to a wolf. Ayla explains that they have to let Wolf smell their hand so they can be introduced. They do, and are charmed when Wolf licks their hand. Ayla explains the process of domestication. Then there’s a good 3-4 pages about limestone rock formations or leather-making or the habits of the woolly rhinocerous, then Ayla is introduced to someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but by the end of the book, it certainly felt like the case. Luckily, I’ve retained the ability to skim that I worked so hard to develop in the first four books.

The thing was, even when I was reading instead of skimming, I wasn’t that impressed with the writing. Auel uses a third-person omniscient narrator, which drives me bonkers, and would frequently shift whose thoughts she was describing in the middle of the paragraph, which led to a number of confusing incidents of pronoun use where it took me several tries to figure out who was talking about whom. She’s also got a bad case of tell (and tell… and tell) rather than show, and she will blithely text the subtext of even the simplest conversations, as though she trusts the reader to wade through pages on the mechanics of atlatls but not to understand what’s going on in the most basic human interactions. These same writing tics were probably present in earlier books in the series as well, but at least then there was an interesting story to distract me. In this case, however, I just found them annoying.

To be fair, the things that make this series so unique are still present. Auel’s a hell of a researcher, and this book (like the rest of the series) is absolutely packed with details about early human history that bring the setting to vivid life. Personally, it was made even richer by having recently read some non-fiction about Cro-Magnon cave paintings (with pictures). Because, if ever a series was calling out for an illustrated guide/companion book, this is it. So, while I did learn some things, and while there were admittedly some nice character moments (both from Ayla & Jondalar and from the newly-introduced and very large supporting cast), the repetitiveness of large chunks of the book mostly overwhelmed the rest of it. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The Shelters of Stone probably *could* be read independently, since Auel spends a lot of time re-hashing the events of past books (sometimes with long verbatim quotes disguised as flashbacks). However, I think people would be better served reading the others and just giving this one a cursory skim.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links:World Heritage Convention’s map of protected sites that match locations in the book.

Other Reviews: Couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: People were gathering on the limestone ledge, looking down at them warily.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 2:46 pm

    I don’t think this is for me. I’m not very patient with slow moving books.

    • May 9, 2011 7:16 pm

      Kathy – Definitely not, then. Maybe the earlier books, but even there, I tended to skim large sections.

  2. May 11, 2011 4:52 am

    Your recap of the story made me laugh for two reasons : first because, well, it’s funny.
    But also, anecdote : I had a similar reaction when reading the first book. As a teen, my friend was a dedicated fan of the series and insisted on my reading it. When she asked me how I liked it, all I could say was that nothing happened, except a lot of walking among the trees, the sand, the mountains, rinse, repeat… ever since, we have referred to this book as “the book about the trees and the walking and stuff”.
    But with all the excitement about the new book, seeing people on the subway completely caught in it, I’m thinking giving this another chance. I’m a more patient reader now I believe!

    • May 13, 2011 11:47 am

      kay – Heh, we usually start talking about “the book with all that stuff about the tundra and the taiga and then Ayla invents everything.” :) If you do start reading the rest of the series, I’ll be curious to see what you think about them now!

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