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Why a 40-Year-Old Book Still Rocks Readers

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

The critical components of any classic: Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear

Bear and Bear Cub
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

This year, in a drastic departure from our norm, the Monday Night Book Club decided to choose our books for 2019 based on the PBS “100 Great American Reads” list.

Traditionally, in an annual December dinner celebration, each member contributes written suggestions of books we think the club might enjoy reading. We compile the suggestions of all the members, read the summaries, and then vote for 12 books to read in the upcoming year.

Our annual list each year has something for everyone. The list, after all, has been culled from our own tastes.

What’s on the List?

A couple of non-fiction books make the cut. Usually, a detective thriller appears — as a nod to our “read-everything-murder-detective-mystery” expert. My favorite is when we take two months and pair a contemporary read with a classic….

two books
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  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby with Chris Bohjalian’s Double Bind

  • John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.

We’re still considering creative couplings in the future:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Lois Leveen’s Juliet’s Nurse

What’s ALWAYS on the list?

An abundance of historical fiction and trendy, mainstream novels.

This year was different.

This year, every book we read had to come from the “100 Great Reads List.”

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Other people did the research. Readers across the country voted on books they loved. Thousands and thousands of works were recommended, and then the list of “100 Great Reads” was determined by the number of votes.

By mid-October of 2018, 3.8 million people had voted on the “Great Reads.”

So we used that list to choose our selections for 2019. What could possibly go wrong with a guide compiled by the educated minds of America?


Stay tuned.

I have to wait until our festive, annual Christmas party to get everyone’s opinion about why the about the highly anticipated “great” reads, really weren’t.

Until then, I can only say that our experiment flopped.

(Maybe more wine at our annual Christmas fest will loosen tongues, reveal insights, and deaden the pain of a year of difficult reads.)

I’ll share our book club’s perspective on our year of reading the “Greats” in another post.

But on the bright side, we read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, a book that’s been on my “want-to-read” list for almost four decades.

I’m so glad I did.

What makes a book a “classic?” or why a book still works years after it was published:

Characters. Conflict. Concept.

Clan of the Cave Bear has them all.


If you haven’t read it because you think that reading about cavemen and cavewomen couldn’t be fun, think again. The characters in Auel’s book are like any modern people. They have distinct personalities. They have unique talents. They build relationships. They fight. They struggle. They laugh and love and procreate.

The only difference is they do it with less language and far fewer clothes.

Ayla, is a five-year-old blonde, blue-eyed child. She survives an earthquake that opened the ground and swallowed the rest of her tribe. Orphaned and alone, she wanders for days. She even survives the attack of a cave lion that leaves claw marks across her left thigh.

Near death, Ayla is found by Brun, Iza, and Creb and the rest of the Cave Bear clan. These three leaders are siblings. Brun is the chief of the clan, Iza is the medicine woman, and Creb is the physically deformed but powerful magician.

Iza takes Ayla in, teaches her the healing arts, and becomes the Mother that Ayla had lost. Creb and Ayla, with their higher intelligence, have a special bond.

What follows is a story of human survival, ostracism, brutality, cruelty, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Ayla, born to “The Others,” is an example of “survival of the fittest.”


Ayla’s nemesis is Broud, the son of Brun’s mate. Broud is an insecure, cruel young man. Conflict arises when Broud believes that Ayla is usurping the attention that should go to him. Throughout the book, through no fault of her own, Ayla’s presence in the clan causes problems. Her intellect and physical size cause her to act in “unacceptable” ways.

Conflict and tension run through the book. The clan’s people struggle to survive. Weather conditions, animal attacks, food shortages, the need for shelter and warmth. The quest for basic human needs is an underlying, natural tension that propels the book forward.

But the conflict is most brutal between Broud and Ayla, the two potential future leaders of the clan. Broud will take Brun’s place. Ayla, the position of medicine woman.

Time after time, Broud attacks Ayla. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and finally, sexually in violent rape.

Conflict is conflict. It hasn’t changed in 30,000 years of history. The same conflicts are happening today. That’s why the book still resonates with readers.

Themes that still work

  • The struggle for survival

  • The need to “belong”

  • The difficulty of being “different”

  • The suppression of women

  • The balance of power between genders

  • The violence against women who don’t submit

  • The use of inherent talents

  • The importance of family

  • The love of children

Fascinating Concept

Clan of the Cave Bear is the story of changing history, the demise of one people and the rise of another. 30,000 years ago.

Jean Auel’s concept fascinates me. I have thousands of ideas but would never think of writing about the intersection of the Cro-Magnon with the Neanderthals. (Heck. I couldn’t even name the types of prehistoric peoples and their eras. Couldn’t even imagine telling the story of people who had very little language.)

Auel had the guts AND the vision to tell a truly unique tale of humanity.

Originally, Auel had planned a short story. The more she researched, the more the idea grew until she had the outline for a full-fledged novel. And then another. And another. And….( you get the idea.)

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first of Auel’s Earth’s Children series, published in 1980. The third novel in the series, The Mammoth Hunters, came out in 1985, and set records because it was the first hardcover novel that had a first printing of more than a million copies.

A “classic” was born.

She knew what she was doing.

Jean Auel’s books have sold 45 MILLION copies across the world.

I loved it. I savored the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it! So what that it was published almost 40 years ago? It was worth the wait.

Melissa Gouty is painfully aware of the passage of days, years, decades, eras and eons. She knows that she will never have enough time to read all the books she wants to and write all the stories inside her.

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