Christopher H.'s Reviews > The Animal Wife

The Animal Wife by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
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Mar 20, 13

bookshelves: adventure, american-authors-translators, fantasy-scifi, historical-fiction, read-in-2013
Read from March 12 to 14, 2013

This review applies to both, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. First, I have to say that as much as I love Jean Auel's "Earth's Children" series, these two novels are simply the very best fictional accounts of prehistoric life on the steppe-tundra of the Altai region of Siberia during the late-Upper Paleolithic, i.e., about 20,000 years ago. The characters in Thomas's books are anatomically modern humans, i.e., Homo sapiens, and based upon the lifestyles of the characters in the two novels, these people were probably best represented by the Gravettian Culture.

By way of background, Thomas spent several years, as a young woman, studying and living with the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert in southwestern Africa in the early-1950s. Living with, and observing, these hunter-gathers has given her unique insight in what life may well have been like in the incredibly unforgiving and harsh Ice-Age environment in Eurasia some twenty millenia ago. The !Kung people are an ancient culture and have continued to live a similar lifestyle for something probably approaching 20,000 years in the Kalahari Desert, much like that of their ancestors over the past 200,000 years since the first appearance of Homo sapiens as a species.

In both novels, Thomas has carefully researched the environmental and ecological conditions of the Ice-Age steppe-tundra ecozone, and then matched this up with her extensive knowledge and experience with the !Kung hunter-gather lifestyle. Both of these novels make for compelling reading. While these novels are at times grim and heart-wrenching, at the same time I think that both tales speak to the profoundly deep connection that these Ice-Age peoples had with their environment, and their families and clan. While the characters in both novels are complex and well-developed and the plots engaging, the core essence of both books revolves around the day-to-day need to acquire food, stay warm, and simply stay alive--none of which are particularly easy tasks. This is incredibly thought-provoking stuff that can't help but make the reader stop and reflect upon just how difficult it must have been for own ancestors as they left Africa some 80,000 years ago and began colonizing these remote and forbidding habitats around the globe, and it wasn't until the end of the Ice-Age, about 10,000 years ago, that life began to measurably improve for the human species.

Finally, if you read these books and have enjoyed them, I highly recommend Ms. Thomas's nonfiction account of her experiences with the !Kung peoples in, The Old Way: A Story of the First People (2006). It is an endlessly fascinating account of a small group of peoples who up until very recently truly lived a lifestyle that has long since passed around much of the rest of the Earth. Reading about the !Kung is quite like entering a time machine and returning to the Upper Paleolithic era of our distant ancestors.
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