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A Matriarch Promotes Her Literary Clan : Books: Jean Auel's success has been a publishing phenomenon. Her fourth novel from the 'Earth Children' series makes another foray into best-sellerdom.

October 28, 1990|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Jean Auel arrives in her Los Angeles hotel room, two packages are waiting under her door. One contains a bookstore chain's best-seller list penciled with an exclamatory, "What about this!" The other is from a Beverly Hills pharmacy, sending over a bottle of antibiotics.

Auel, the blockbuster author of the "Earth Children" series--"The Clan of the Cave Bear," "The Valley of Horses" and "The Mammoth Hunters"--is about to embark on a monthlong U.S. tour to promote her fourth novel, "The Plains of Passage," which arrived in bookstores last week under a banner that ballyhooed, "It's coming."

A publishing phenomenon whose novels have each sold more than 5 million copies, Auel has gathered a fanatical following. A Death Row inmate once wrote to inquire whether a new book would be out before his execution date and mothers say they have named their children after her characters.

To let them know that another installment in the series is on its way, Auel has stumped for her book in Denmark, Holland, Sweden, England, Scotland and at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She jetted to New York to appear on "The Today Show" and left the same evening for her home in Oregon. There she bought a few blouses, spent 48 hours in her glass-tiered house overlooking the Pacific, then headed for Los Angeles.

"I want people to read my books," she explains, popping a penicillin tablet for a sore throat and ordering a pot of chamomile tea. "If Ayla were here she could take care of me," she adds with a chuckle.

For readers just tuning in to the series, Ayla is Auel's heroine of the late-Pleistocene Age--half feminist, half Hollywood pin-up--whose adventures occur under the shadow of Eurasian glaciers.

During the first three volumes, Ayla, a pretty Cro-Magnon 5-year-old, is orphaned as the result of an earthquake and raised by a Neanderthal clan on the steppes of what is now the Russian Crimea. The more primitive people, with their short stocky bodies and sloping foreheads, consider the lovely child, so physically different from themselves, to be ugly, even deformed. Still her compassionate stepmother, Iza, and Creb, a crippled shaman, love her and teach her the valuable medicinal properties of plants, including a birth-control brew.

Exiled from the clan as a teen-ager, after incurring the clan leader's wrath, Ayla fends for herself, becoming the first human to domesticate animals and ride a horse. When Jondalar, a strapping 6-foot-6 Cro-Magnon youth, arrives in the valley, they fall in love. Jondalar, who is proving his manhood on a four-year odyssey, determines to take Ayla back to his home. The plan almost fails, however, as Ayla enjoys a passionate affair with a Mediterranean ivory carver named Ranec, but in the current volume the reconciled lovers travel west across the continent.

As comfort and cleanliness-conscious as any Middle American tourists, they pick pleasant camp sites, chosen prudently before sunset, bathe and change their clothes before dinner, and feast on such repasts as a bison roast basted in a light horseradish sauce and hearty stews made of vegetables and rich meat broth. "It sounds delicious. I can hardly wait," Jondalar comments as Ayla describes the victuals that will go into their moveable larder.

Auel's point, however, is that Cro-Magnon man, who lived from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, was a highly developed person who, according to cave paintings and burial excavations, made sophisticated art and wore finely crafted clothes. Rare carved effigies from the period show fine-boned women, who, Auel reasons, certainly shared our same emotions.

"I am trying to get beyond the stereotype. I'm trying to show these people as human beings and not as uga-muga ape men," she states energetically.

But in the American popular conception, Auel points out, confusion exists between our immediate ancestors and the Neanderthals, an evolutionary gap that Ayla bridges.

"None of us can imagine today what it would be like to encounter another human intelligence that was different from our own. But that was what was happening here," declares Auel, saying burial sites in France indicate the two races overlapped.

For Jondalar, the Neanderthals were "a pack of flatheads"--which is the treatment he and Ayla (played by Daryl Hannah) received in the Hollywood version of "Clan," says Auel, who sued the production company and reclaimed rights to her other two books.

"They got these same old kind of costumes, raggedy furs, up over the shoulders. Show a lot of bare skin," she says. Shot in Canada, the film has one sequence in which the clan crosses a glacier. "Those actors were freezing," Auel says, still fuming at the flouting of authenticity. "You'd think, hey guys, does that tell you something. If they're cold, maybe the people you're depicting should also have warmer clothes on. Maybe the costumes aren't right."

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