Out of the Cave – a look at a different kind of dystopian novel

by Rachel Baker on May 8, 2014

This is an article on Slate.com about the book The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. I found it fascinating and compelling enough to put the book on my reading list. I read this book probably in the mid-80s; and to be completely honest, I’m not sure if I ever read The Valley of the Horses.

The article really looks at literary distopias and how The Clan of the Cave Bear fits, not because its about the dystopia of the future, but instead because its about the dystopia of the past.

So what really captivated us about The Clan of the Cave Bear? Why did that novel resonate so strongly and compel us to keep reading? What really made the book a touchstone for teens much younger than the book’s intended audience?

At its core, Cave Bear is speculative fiction about a young girl’s survival and resilience in an elaborately imagined authoritarian society. Sound familiar? It’s the same narrative engine that powers The Hunger Games, Divergent and the myriad novels of the young-adult dystopia explosion of the last half-decade. Auel may not have known she was writing about a precursor to Katniss Everdeen—but that’s how a whole generation of teens received Ayla.

In her excellent New Yorker essay about the YA dystopian boom, Laura Miller draws on the work of academic Kay Sambell to draw a distinction between the dystopias of novels written for adults and those written for children, noting that the YA versions are “not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.” Miller notes that “the typical arc of the [YA] dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection.” Ayla realizes over time that her clan is oppressive and incapable of change. Despite her commitment to it, she begins to wonder if there’s an alternative way to live. As she is cast out at the end of the novel, Ayla decides to undertake a journey to find “the Others” and a better life.


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