After being released, The Plains of Passage debuted at the top of the Publisher's Weekly Fiction Bestseller List, and remained on the list for about twelve weeks. During that span, the book topped the efforts of m
any best-selling authors, including Stephen King's Four Past Midnight, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, Jackie Collins' Lady Boss and Sidney Sheldon's Memories of Midnight. Jean M. Auel's salary of twenty five million dollars and combined book sales of
more than twenty million copies attest to the fact that the Earth's Children series has capitalized on a very profitable and devoted niche of the reading market. Her readers keep returning to her stories with their common formula of "man's emergence from
primitivism to civilization."(Reynolds)
Auel herself, a "plump housewife," is uncertain about the secret of her success. She is an accidental writer who came up with the idea for her story while she was "in a free floating state . . .after spending practically every minute of her life raising
a family, working and going to school" (Bongartz). At the time she began her story, she was over forty years old and lacked both the literary experience and factual expertise that she needed to construct appealing and believable adventures. She turned t
o research in archaeology and anthropology and to writing advice from Techniques on Fiction Writing. She " knew that to make [her] story believable [she] would have to get in some depth of description"(Bongartz). And, it is this attention to extensive det
ails and description that has earned Auel great praise. But, what exactly is the appeal of Auel's Earth's Children Series?
In a 1990 review for the Los Angeles Times Book review, one reviewer stated the books "incorporate numerous touches commonly found in commercial fiction: lusty protracted sex scenes (the heroine's sweetly ingenuous euphemism for intercourse is ?pleasure'
) ; natural and man-made adversity; and a suspenseful ?Perils of Pauline' atmosphere in which the protagonist must grapple with unanticipated, potentially lethal hazards ranging from mammoths to mudslides."(Bass) A definite factor in the book's popularity
is its diversity in content; with its adventures, romance, and social commentary, the book is not easily classified into one genre, and thus, it does not appeal to only one audience. After examining reviews and criticisms, the popularity of this book can
be attributed to its escapist nature, its timely release when interest was peaked in the prehistoric period, and its painstaking attention to detail.
One of the particular strengths in The Plains of Passage, as with all of her books, is the "verisimilitude in her writing of the details of everyday life among ancient peoples. [It is this strength that ] has won Auel admiration from the scientific com
munity." She incorporates information that she has acquired from research and travel into her story. For example, "the character of Jondalar [Ayla's tall blond lover] is based on an actual skeleton found at the site called Cro-Magnon. . .one of them wa
s a man who was six feet, five and ¾ inches tall."(O'Connell) Although the characters are sometimes criticized for inaccuracy in the portrayal of their abilities, the readers are always fascinated by the accounts of human survival that involve "weapon-
making, horse taming, the invention of bow and arrow, the early science of herbal medicine, boat building, and much conjecture on primitive religion, clan structure, spirit worship, totem and taboo."(Sales) However, it is not this academic accuracy that c
an account for her amazing popularity. There have been many "caveman" books that never made it to the bestsellers list, including Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' The Animal Wife. Both came out at the same time, and both dealt with the life and social structur
es during the Ice age.
In a critical essay comparing the two "vastly different renditions of broadly similar themes . . .[it is concluded] that Thomas approaches her material is a more detached and meditative manner . . .[whereas] Auel's book consists of pure entertainment at
its sublime, wholly exhilarating best. Brimming with thrills, the emotionally charged confrontations and moments of high passion, the novel resembles a fairy tale in every impending catastrophe is averted, thus allowing the saintly hero and heroine to flo
urish." (Bass) From this critique, it is easy to deduce that Auel's readers do not choose her books only for their conscientious research and detail, but also for the escapism that the book offers in its fairy tale romances and dangerous adventures.
Auel is able to successfully incorporate these aspects into her books, even when they are unlikely by "coaxing readers to suspend disbelief . . .[as she] coaxes them into her comforting fantasy world of ideal resolutions and triumphant valor."(Bass) It
is the cushion of this perfect world that readers looking for an escape ultimately turn to. Realistically, readers recognize the improbability of Ayla's character. She, on top of being a beautiful blonde, is assigned superhuman qualities; she is a "prim
ordial genius: medicine-woman, animal tamer, gourmet cook, craftsperson and ravishing beauty." (Sales) These qualities are mocked by one reviewer who questions this woman that is "clever enough to invent a contraceptive in an era when human reproductive
capabilities were apparently still a mystery." (Delince) And the story contains adventure that is completely foreign to any modern reader; their trips involve encounters with woolly mammoths, enormous glaciers, locust swarms, and hostile tribes that gree
t the two (with their domesticated wolf and horses) as dangerous spirits. It is during these adventures that Auel's detail become so necessary; she is able to pull the reader into situations that he or she?without Auel's extensive details- would have no e
Auel uses this influence over the reader to her own advantage by including her own feminist beliefs in the context of the story. Auel describes herself as an ardent feminist, and in her research, she makes the claim for a matriarchal society. In the Pla
ins of Passage, Ayla is a strong and capable character, and there are often women in positions of power. Consequently, this novel has been examined in terms of its feminist assertions. In Diane Wood's article, "Female Heroism In the Ice Age", Wood suppor
ts the feminist claim and states that Ayla "faces the challenge of wilderness and survives, conforming to the pattern of the male hero in adventure tales. Love remains secondary to heroic action. . .[she] does not seek external validation by men . . .[an
d] she possesses inherent skills which are generally associated with men."(Wood)
Auel's brand of feminism is described as one "that entails equality of access to political power and occupations, and a blending of gender roles." However. this story can not be considered a strictly feminist work; although the aspects of adventure seem
to classify it as such. Auel also turns to romantic conventions to propel her story, and in doing so, she sometimes deviates from her feminist agenda. Although she does make a concerted effort to include women in powerful and influential roles in the co
mmunities that they encounter, it is often only achieved through oppressive and unnatural force. At one point, Jondalar is captured by the S'Armunai tribe, which is a "dysfunctional society rules by women. . .The woman who heads the tribe is mad, and disl
ocates the legs of young boys as they pass through puberty."(Wilcox) Auel is seemingly turning against her feminist principles by suggesting that the government of this community is flawed, and that women can only achieve positions of power through force
. Auel is able to expand upon gender stereotypes of both men and women, and in doing so, she combines both the positive and negative in her characters. Ayla is an extraordinarily skilled woman, whereas Jondalar, her lover, is more domesticated and relaxed
. In doing this, "the novels question narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity to arrive at new answers which have implications for today's society."(Galenet database)
In an era where women were entering the work force in increasing numbers, divorce rates were climbing and gender roles were being redefined, her novels--despite their prehistoric setting- touched upon very new and modern issues. And, it is this ability t
o tap into these societal trends that leads to the creation of a bestseller. Despite critiques and assessment of the book itself, one must consider the state of its audience as a telling factor in explaining its popularity. There is an essentially unans
wered core reason for the book's success among audiences, but trends at the time of release must have influenced the interests of the readers. Fortunately, Auel's novels appeared at a time when long-standing notions of prehistoric life were being reassess
ed. As A Newsweek cover relates, "the real-life Earth's Children of some 17000-35,000 years ago were far from brutish, unintelligent creatures of stereotype. On the contrary, their era, ripe with art and invention, was actually the ?cradle of human cult
ure' as Newsweek's Sharon Begley writes." These new discoveries challenged long-standing views of "cavemen" and Auel's books with the complexity that she assigned to her prehistoric characters, fit into this new appreciation for people of the Ice Age.
The Plains of Passage can be reviewed and critiqued using the parameters of various different genres, and it is definite that the inclusion of so many parameters that aided in its widespread appeal. A critical analysis would be remiss in excluding its i
nclusion of techniques of adventure writing, academic writing, romance writing and social commentary. These, in turn, appeal to the escapist reader who finds sanctuary in the events of beautiful and gifted adventurers who exist in a foreign land, culture
, and time period. Auel's novel achieves extraordinary success for incorporating these variables into a text, that although lacking in raw literary talent, does provide the reader with a 757-page repose from the real world with its restrictions and bound
aries on adventure, gender and so forth.
Bass, Judy. Interfacing in the Ice Age. Los Angeles Times Book Review, 10/14/90.
Bongartz, Roy. Jean Auel. Publisher's Weekly, 11/29/85.
Delince, Danielle. The Plains of Passage Book Review. The New York Times Book Review, 11/18/90.
O'Connell, Nicholas. An interview with Jean Auel. At the field's end, 1987.
Reynolds, Joan. The Plains of Passage Book Review. School Library Journal, April 1991.
Sales, Grover. Primordial Passions of the Pleistocene Times: The Flesh is Willing, But the Diction is Weak. Los Angeles Times Book Review, 9/12/82.
Wilcox, Clyde. The Not-So-Failed Feminism of Jean Auel. Journal of Popular Culture, Winter 1994.
Wood, Diane. Female Heroisn in the Ice Age: Jean Auel's Earth's Children. Extrapolation, Spring 1986.