Jean Auel has inspired wonder about prehistoric times in her readers, since the success of her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear. The subsequent books in her series, The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, and The Plains of Passages have enjoyed similar acclaim. In The Mammoth Hunters, Auel continues her saga of Jondalar and Ayla. This book was marked for success. It was the third novel in a popular, well-received series. It was printed at a time when prehistoric fiction was popular, and had been made popular by Auel's previous books.
Another factor that is an asset to its status as a bestseller was the book's genre. The Mammoth Hunters contains many aspects of a romance novel, which is appealing to women readers. Examples of these are the love story between Ayla and Jondalar, Ayla's physical perfection, the jealousy that Ranec and Jondalar have of each other, and the happy ending. The success of romance stories, and the appeal that they have, can be seen in the case of authors such as Victoria Holt, Danielle Steele, and Judith McNaught. Romance is not the only factor that contributed to the book's success. There are many aspects of the novel that also appeal to men. Examples of these are hunting, tool making, and dominant leaders. Michael Crichton is an author who appeals to male readership, and deals with similar, if futuristic issues in his novels.
The Mammoth Hunters is a two-layered novel. There is scientific research, as well as a good romance. Her readership audience is therefore made up of individuals who like to read romance stories, prehistoric fiction, or historical fiction. Because of the several different genres to which The Mammoth Hunters appeals, there is no particular age group that prefers the novel. The book has a broad appeal. Upon examination of other prehistoric novels, such as those written by Michael W. Gear, it becomes apparent that this formula, combining fairly accurate research with a simple, but rewarding plot, creates a successful novel on the subject of prehistoric fiction. The Mammoth Hunters is a classic example of successful prehistoric fiction.
Criticism of the book fell into two categories. Many critics praised the novel for its intensive research and in depth explanations. Jane Spitzer of The Christian Science Monitor was one such critic. She writes, "Besides her extensive library research, Auel has taken courses in plant identification, wilderness survival, and aboriginal life skills. She has made stone tools, tanned a hide with deer brains, and spent the night with Ray [Auel's husband] in a snow cave on Mt. Hood. Auel puts her research and firsthand knowledge into her complex and detailed descriptions of everything from making a stone tool to hunting with a slingshot" (The Christian Science Monitor 12/30/85). Auel's intensive research has earned her much renown.
Not all areas of Auel's novel were praised. The Mammoth Hunters received harsh criticism due to Auel's introduction of the romance novel aspect into her book. Romance was first brought into her novels in The Valley of Horses. Scenes of a sexual nature, involving Ayla, were a frequent target of critics. Sandy Rovner of The Washington Post was especially harsh. He writes, "Somebody must have told Auel to get a little spice into Ayla's life, so now Ayla stirs genuine passion in every Cro-Magnon male who catches sight of her, and once she is awakened (in the previous book) to the joys of sex, or as Auel calls them "the Pleasures," we are made privy -- on almost every other page -- to Ayla's erotic exploits. Sometimes these are with her own true love Jondalar and sometimes with her new playmate Ranec. Nevertheless, these adventures are a bit too self-conscious to be erotic and are somehow more intrusive than titillating" (The Washington Post 12/15/85). Auel's sex scenes have also been called childish and repetitive, as well as gratuitous. Whether they truly are some, all, or none of the above, they definitely occur frequently. This shows that the author was targeting a readership that enjoyed novels with a certain kind of sex scenes, and that the critics were tired of them.
The two layers of The Mammoth Hunters can be perhaps best defined as the serious vs. the ridiculous. Serious aspects of her novel included the social structure of a nomadic society, herbal medicines, the spread of language, hunting techniques, the construction of tools and dwellings, food preparation and preservation. Auel also did a magnificent job of describing the flora and fauna of the European setting, as well as the ancient climate and weather.
Ridiculous aspects of Auel's novel include Ayla's individual perfection and high mental capacities. The "ideal" ending to most situations, combined with flat, stereotypical characters turns her book into more of a romance novel than a work of literature. She also takes liberties with the role of females in ancient society, giving them more respect by males, and social mobility than they probably had. While this is a matter of debate, history shows a consistent trend of treating women as inferior to men. On one hand, the romance novel element in The Mammoth Hunters takes away from some of the credibility of Auel's research. On the other hand, a scientifically researched, accurate, detailed depiction of many aspects of prehistoric life adds depth to a simple plot and a typical romance. Ken Ringle of The Washington Post described the complexities in plot as such. He writes, "It may be the least probable setting for a best-selling novel since "Watership Down": a mind-teasing blend of archeology, paleontological botany, Outward Bound survivalism, geophysics and "Flame-and-the-Flower" romance" (The Washington Post, 2/21/86). The novel became a best seller because of Auel's unique blend of seriousness and entertainment.
Along with the in depth research that is present in Auel's book there are also several social and cultural controversies. There is an emphasis on different cultures and customs. This is seen in Jondalar's comparison of his people, the Zelandonii, and the Mamutoi, with whom Ayla and Jondalar were wintering. The focus is on acceptance and finding common ground.
This attempt to understand the differences in culture is also made when comparing customs of the Clan to customs of the Others. When Ayla gives a Clan burial to a child of mixed heritage, she draws comparisons between the two burial rituals. At the close of the burial rites, Ayla looks around. Volcanic ash falls from the sky, from a recent eruption. Auel writes, "The fine light dust covered everything, the stones of the cairn, the grass, even the brown dust of the path. Logs and bush alike took on the same hue. It covered the people standing by the grave as well, and to Ayla, they all began to look the same. Differences were lost in the face of such awesome powers as movements of the earth, and death" (Auel 700). Ayla saw through the grief of her friends, that beneath the apparent differences they all had, they all shared similar emotions. This idea of transcending color and culture is similar to the idea of 1980s political correctness.
Along with the issue of finding common ground, The Mammoth Hunters also took on the issue of fidelity. Jondalar was enraged when Ayla decided to sleep with Ranec, a member of the Mamutoi camp. Jondalar's jealousy stemmed from Ayla's fidelity. All members of the Lion camp noticed their problems. Auel describes, "The feelings of Jondalar and Ranec for Ayla, and the problem that was developing because of them, was apparent to all, though most people did not acknowledge is. They didn't want to interfere, hoping to give the three of them room to work it out for themselves" (Auel 346). The main problem was that Ayla could not decide which individual she was going to be faithful to. Fidelity was an important cultural issue of the 1980s. Family values and the Christian right championed the nuclear family, and abstinence from sex until marriage. The themes in The Mammoth Hunters of true love and fidelity provided grounds for discussion.
There are several apparent flaws in the construction of Auel's novel that various critics have pointed out. If Ayla was the first feminist, then why was she an unreasonable picture of physical perfection? If Auel is going to examine the social structure of a nomadic society in depth then why are her plot predictable and formulaic?
Ayla makes an unrealistic number of discoveries during the course of the novel. It is too much weight for one character to bear. Among many other discoveries, Ayla is given credit with the discovery of fire, how conception is related to sexual intercourse, advanced methods of hunting, the creation of a calendar, and the domestication of dogs and horses.
Along with her intellectual prowess, Ayla is one lucky individual. Almost all situations she encounters have predictable outcomes, and usually have positive outcomes. For example, hunting is always successful, Ayla narrowly escapes danger numerous times. Conflicts are always resolved, with a lesson learned. The end of the book neatly ties up all loose ends in the conflict of fidelity. Ayla realizes that Jondalar is her true love. She tells her former fiancée, Ranec, that she cannot marry him, and that she is leaving with Jondalar. Ranec is of course devastated. All through the book it is assumed that Jondalar and Ayla will be reunited in the end. There couldn't be a sequel otherwise.
Impossible intellect and a predictable plot may take away from a book's literary quality, but not from its best-selling status. Most novels are purchased as pleasure reading, and the reader expects to be entertained. Fortunate escapes from danger, physical perfection, and a happy ending are escapes from the ordinary world, and bring enjoyment to the reader.
An individual who has read the first books of the Earth's Children series is likely to want to read the following installations in the series. Each book ends with a cliffhanger. The Clan of the Cave Bear ended with Ayla discovering a valley to call her own. The Valley of Horses ended with Ayla finding Jondalar, and people of her own kind. The Mammoth Hunters ended with Ayla deciding to journey home with Jondalar, and her acceptance of his love. The Plains of Passage ended with Ayla arriving at Jondalar's home, and discovering she was going to bear his child. The end of the previous book creates interest in the next. This makes individuals more likely to purchase Auel's novels than if all questions were answered at the end of each novel. Another romance author who employs a similar technique is Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series. Auel's books have staying power. They were successful at their first edition of publication, and have undergone many reprintings. The series spurs readers to continue with Auel's books, and that has helped with sales. They remain popular, and will most likely undergo a resurgence of popularity when Auel's fifth book in the series is finally released.
Auel, like many authors, weaves an aura of mystery around her persona. She lives in a remote area of Oregon State. She writes her books in seclusion. At the same time, she tries to appear as a scholarly researcher. Her book jacket photo shows Auel surrounded by her books, appearing as a severe and austere researcher. She has traveled to Europe to do hands on research for her novels. She has learned to do many of the crafts, such as flint knapping, and leather preparation that are described in The Mammoth Hunters. This is a possible reflection of Ayla's character. Ayla was extremely industrious and creative, and it is evident that Auel also wants to appear as such.
Although Auel was not the first to write about prehistoric peoples, she received great acclaim and public attention when she did so. Her novels helped to establish a new genre in American literature. Her success has inspired others to write about the subject. Many authors have since followed in her footsteps: Mary Mackey has written about prehistoric Europe. As with Auel, a woman is her main character. Outside of ancient Europe, there has been a myriad of writings about prehistoric Americans. Examples of such authors are William Sarabande, Michael W. Gear, and Linda Lay Schuler. Each of these authors has written several books on the subject.
The Mammoth Hunters is a strong example of what a classic prehistoric novel should entail. It is multi-layered with a broad appeal. The Mammoth Hunters is an interesting work of prehistoric fiction that had a focus on both romance and ancient societies and their way of life. It became a bestseller because of its broad appeal to many fiction readers. A wide variety of individuals were able to enjoy the book, because it contained several different genres: romance, research, and prehistory. Its place in a series helped it receive attention on the onset of its publishing. Its discussion of modern day issues helped the readers connect with the story line. All in all, The Earth's Children Series, and The Mammoth Hunters is a bestseller that fits the definition of prehistoric fiction.