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Interfacing in the Ice Age : THE PLAINS OF PASSAGE By Jean M. Auel (Crown: $24.95; 752 pp.) ; THE ANIMAL WIFE By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Houghton Mifflin/Peter Davison: $19.95; 289 pp.)

October 14, 1990|Judy Bass | Bass is book columnist for The Boston Herald

"Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you," wrote Gustave Flaubert, author of "Madame Bovary." According to him, "the greatest characteristic of genius is, above all, force."

Two new novels about prehistoric hunter-gatherers--"The Plains of Passage" by Jean M. Auel and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' "The Animal Wife"--both exemplify the kind of narrative power that Flaubert equated with virtuosity. Nevertheless, these are vastly different renditions of broadly similar themes.

Auel, a superlative raconteur. has crafted a consistently engaging adventure story with a solid historical underpinning. Set in Ice- Age Europe, it also incorporates numerous touches commonly found in commercial fiction: lusty, protracted sex scenes (the heroine's sweetly ingenuous euphemism for intercourse is "pleasures"); natural and man-made adversity; and a suspenseful "Perils of Pauline" atmosphere in which the protagonists must grapple with unanticipated, potentially lethal hazards ranging from mammoths to mudslides.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Marshal Thomas approaches her material in a more detached, meditative manner than does Auel. Somber verisimilitude supersedes dramatic embellishment in "The Animal Wife," which concerns the daily exigencies of survival in Siberia 20,000 years ago.

Simply put, what Thomas actually presents is a nearly 300-page "snapshot" of Paleolithic life. Filled with evocative descriptions of an environment that offers sustenance as well as daunting hardships, this tale features the interrelated members of several hunting groups. As narrated by an earnest, unworldly young man named Kori, we see these people gamely struggling to retain their fragile unity even while friction between the sexes jeopardizes it.

The last book in Jean Auel's multivolume "Earth's Children" series was "The Mammoth Hunters" (1985). In "The Plains of Passage," she brings back Jondalar and Ayla, itinerant lovers who now attempt to traverse a continent in order to join Jondalar's kin, the Zelandonii. Three personal qualities help them to withstand this seemingly interminable trek: ingenuity, fortitude and mutual devotion.

Once again, Ayla is depicted as possessing "knowledge beyond the ken of ordinary people." This dazzlingly innovative 18-year-old outshines everyone around her, including the able Jondalar. Clearly blessed with a more sophisticated intelligence than her peers, versatile Ayla can sew, cook delectable meals, utilize the medicinal properties of certain vegetation, aid the sick and instantly start a fire merely by rubbing iron pyrite with a piece of flint.

However, Ayla's most wondrous feat involves two horses and a wolf. While her Ice-Age contemporaries slaughter such animals for their hides or to be consumed as food, she chooses to tame the beasts, transforming them into benign companions. Strangers whom Ayla and Jondalar meet along the way are inevitably transfixed--and highly alarmed--at the bizarre sight of humans astride horses, accompanied by an obedient wolf.

Ayla's eagerness to demonstrate to these people that they can trust creatures whom they customarily dislike illustrates a pivotal message conveyed by "The Plains of Passage"--that good will, open-mindedness, toleration and patience are almost always preferable to unthinking hostility. Consequently, those with selfish, belligerent attitudes who display no respect for the rights of others or the sanctity of life are the villains of this novel, villains whom Jondalar and Ayla jointly vanquish.

A corollary subplot of the book concerns the callous mistreatment of women by men, a theme dealt with far more extensively in "The Animal Wife." As Auel shows, females make vulnerable targets for the unchecked lust and violence of aggressors. In her view, though, even victims of barbarism can be physically and spiritually reinvigorated via salutary doses of love.

Misogyny surfaces repeatedly in "The Animal Wife," which Elizabeth Marshall Thomas calls "a companion piece"to her 1987 novel, "Reindeer Moon." The narrator, Kori, declares, "My story is the story of women." With electrifying clarity, Thomas soon reveals that the abuse of women will figure prominently in his saga.

The characters in "The Animal Wife" confront the same conditions that Jondalar and Ayla face. They require food and shelter, cope with harsh weather and constantly need to outwit predators. Since these tasks are better accomplished through collective action than individual effort, Kori's relatives all try to cooperate. Regrettably, genuine harmony isn't sustainable due to the men's overt chauvinism and their conception of women as chattel.

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