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Jean M(arie) Auel (1936-) - née Untinen


American novelist who gained international fame with her Earth's Children series, sagas about life in the Stone Age Europe and the early tribesmen. Begun in 1980 with The Clan of the Cave Bear, the six-volume series was concluded in 2011. Auel's novels are detailed and based on research but they are also colored with a captivating storyline and vivid imagination. By 2010, her prehistoric romances had sold more than 45 million copies in 28 languages.

"Clan Gatherings were also a time to reestablish old acquaintances, see relatives from other clans, and exchange gossip and stories that would enliven many a cold winter evening for the next few years. Young people, unable to find mates within their own clan, vied for each other's attention, though matings could only take place if the woman was acceptable to the leader of the young man's clan. It was considered an honor for a young woman to be chosen, especially by a clan of a higher status, although moving away would be traumatic for her and her loved ones left behind." (in The Clan of the Cave Bear, 1980)

Jean Marie Auel was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Neil S. Untinen, a housepainter, and Martha (Wirtanen) Untinen. Jean Marie was the second of five children. Upon graduating from Jones Commercial High School in Chicago, she married Ray Bernard Auel in 1954; they had five children within six years. As a counterbalance to her daily household affairs, she became in 1964 an active member of Mensa. In 1965-66 she was employed as a clerk in Beaverton, Oregon, then as a circuit board designer (1966-1973), technical writer (1973-74), and eventually a credit manager (1974-1976).

After studies at Portland State University, Oregon and University of Portland, Auel received her M.B.A. in 1976, at the age of forty. In the same year she got the idea for a story about a girl, Ayla, living amongst people who are different from her. (Her name may be derived from a corrupted form of the Finnish first name Aila.) Auel left her well-paying position in a Portland electronics plant and devoted herself entirely to writing.

The idea started to grow and after intense research she finished a 450,000 word manuscript. However, dissatisfied with her work, she then borrowed from a library writing guides and wrote several more drafts. During the long creative process, Auel learned ancient hunting methods, tanning methods, how to knapp flint and prepare food from caribou brain. She had difficulties to find a publisher for her novel, especially because she planned to continued the story in five subsequent books. The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the first in the Earth's Children Series, became one of the major works in the evolution of prehistoric romances. It was an immediate success, sold over three million paper-back copies and earned her an American Book Award Nominatiom. Auel's story of self-discovery, 'The Ugly Duckling' set in the ancient times, was translated into several languages, among others into Finnish - Auel's grandparents, families Untinen and Virtanen, originated from Finland, Ostrobothnian region, known for its independent and enterprising people.

Auel starts series with a story of survival. An orphaned Cro-Magnon child, Ayla, is adopted by the Neanderthal Clan of the Cave Bear. She grows up in the Neanderthal community, which is ruled by traditions and taboos. "Before dipping in and disturbing the mirrored surface, she leaned over and looked at herself. She studied her features carefully; she didn't seem so ugly this time, but it wasn't herself she was interested in. She wanted to see the face of the Others." (from The Clan of the Cave Bear)

Ayla is considered a misfit, and her rebelling against male dominance is punished. However, as a blond, blue-eyed woman she is more than a typical "Aryan" heroine - she is a combination of Tarzan's Jane, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart in the same person. Her intelligence separates her from the other tribe members, although physically she is submitted to the leader of the Neanderthals. Finally she is forced to leave her son and to seek her own destiny. In 1988, parents of students attending Berrien Springs High School in Michigan challenged the use of the novel in classroom. Five years later the novel was challenged at Moorpark High School in Sunneyville, California. Parents complained that the novel contained "hardcore graphic sexual content."

In The Valley of Horses (1983) Ayla searches for the Others, her own race. She learns the secrets of fire, and is helped by animals. The story introduces Ayla's mate Jondalar, a Cro-Magnon man, also tall and yellow-haired. The Mammoth Hunters (1985), which sold 1,100,000 copies, presents a triangle drama between Ayla, the dark-skinned Ranec, and jealous Jondalar. Ayla also finds her first women friends among the tribe of Mamutoi and learns the customs and language of the Others. In Plains of Passage (1990) Ayla treks with Jondalar through the grasslands of Ice Age Europe to reach a place they can call home. Jondalar is captured by man-hating women and rescued by Ayla. In the end of the story Ayla is happily pregnant. Before the story of Ayla continued, readers had to wait 12 years.

In the fifth book, The Shelters of Stone (2002), Ayla struggles for her place in Jondalar's tribe, the Zelendonii. "She was a stranger, a disturbing stranger who brought animals and who knew what other threatening foreign ways and outrageous ideas. Would they accept her? What if they didn't? She couldn't go back, her people lived more than a year's travel to the east. Jolandar had promised that he would leave with her if she wanted – or was forced – to go, but that was before he saw everyone, before he was greeted so warmly. How would he feel now?" Ayla and Jondalar prepare for the formal mating at the Summer Meeting, she faces Jondalar's former lover, Marona, and proves her skills as a healer. The fifth installment was a disappointment for Katherine A. Powers, who wrote in The Washington Post: "It strikes one as being a romance for people who fantasize about going into business -- something with a strong emphasis on crafts and home products and professional conferences. In other words, the spirit of Martha Stewart informs the pages as much as the Great Mother's does." The story is still not closed... The 6th and supposedly final volume in the Earth's Children series is entitled Land of Painted Caves (2011). Auel has also planned to write a prehistoric murder mystery.

Auel uses the prehistoric setting to explore gender roles, drawing parallels between cave society and contemporary social structures. Though her Stone Age fantasy in many respects contradict archaeologists vision of the past, she has managed to create a fictional world, that seems to correspond to reality, at least more than Edgar Rice Burroughs's adventure stories. Ayla is a feminist heroine from the theories of matriarchal prehistory, she hunts with the men, but she is not a warlike Amazon or an Upper Paleolithic female Tarzan. She is a conciliator and innovator, the first to ride on a horse and tame a wolf as a domestic animal, she knows the secrets of the herbs, and she invents a new technique for making fire by striking iron pyrite onto flint. Auel pays much attention to female resourcefulness, which is a constant source of astonishment and doubt for politically reactionary cave men, especially the Neanderthals. "Her brain followed different paths, her full, high forehead that housed forward-thinking frontal lobes, gave her an understanding from a different view." However, Auel's attempt to impose the changing social roles of modern women on prehistory has been criticized by Joseph Carroll as resulting in "absurd perspectival misconstructions".

The film adaptation of The Clan of the Cave Bear (1985), produced on Canadian exteriors, combined sex, stone-age, and anthropology. It was not so realistic as Quest for Fire (1981), dealing with the problems of primitive men, or humorous as the legendary animated series Flintstones, but far more intelligent than One Million Years BC (1966), starring Raquel Welsh in her famous fur trimmed bikini. The long-limbed, healthy-looking Daryl Hannah as Ayla is a sympathetic pre-historic feminist - before this role, she just had played a replicant, and mermaid, and left these these kind characters for a while.

Auel has received several awards, including an American Book Award nomination for best first novel and Friends of Literature Award for The Clan of the Cave Bear (1981), Scandinavian Kaleidoscope of Art and Life Award (1982), Golden Plate award (1986), American Academy of Achievement (1986), Silver Trowel Award (1990), National Zoo Award (1990), Waldo award from Waldenbrooks, and Persie Aeard for WIN (both 1990). She has honorary degrees from University of Portland, University of Maine, and Mt. Vernon College.

For further reading: The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel by Nicholas Ruddick (2009); Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (2006); 'Adaptationist Criteria of Literary Value: Assessing Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger, Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, and Golding's The Inheritors', in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature by Joseph Carroll (2004); 'Hear Me Roar' by Katherine A. Powers, The Washington Post (May 26, 2002); A to Z of American Women Writers by Carol Kort (2000); 'Wells, Golding, and Auel: Representing the Neanderthal' by Charles DePaolo, in Science Fiction Studies, Volume 27 (2000); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. David Mote (1997); Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. Aruna Vasudevan (1994) - See also: William Golding's The Inheritors (1955), Björn Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger (1978)

Selected works:

  • Clan of the Cave Bear, 1980
    - Luolakarhun klaani (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1981)
    Film 1985, directed by Michael Chapman, screenplay by John Sayles, photographer Jan de Bont, starring Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed, James Remar, Thomas G. Waites, John Doolittle
  • The Valley of Horses, 1983
    - Hevosten laakso (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1982)
  • The Mammoth Hunters, 1985
    - Mammutin metsästäjät (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1985)
  • Plains of Passage, 1990
    - Tasangon vaeltajat (suom. Tiina Ohinmaa, Aulis Rantanen, Kirsti Kattelus, 1990)
  • The Shelters of Stone, 2002
    - Luolien suojatit (suom. Ulla Selkälä, Ilkka Äärelä, 2002)
  • Land of Painted Caves, 2011
    - Maalattujen luolien maa (suom. 2011)

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