On the surface, Jean Auel is a walking anachronism:
She can make a knife by flaking obsidian with a deer-antler tine.
She can make tough cord from a plant called dogbane.
She can made medicine and quite a lot of nourishing food from roots, flowers, leaves, berries, bark . . .
And she carries a lot of these goodies around in a buckskin bag she made herself. At the drop of a hammer-stone (she has one of those, too) she'll do her quick little show-and-tell number.
She spends a lot of time 35,000 years ago (give or take ten millennia) for which she is making a lot of 20th-century bucks.
Her first novel, "The Clan of the Cave-Bear," a sort of Ice-Age "Dallas," seems poised at the brink of best-sellerdom and has already generated some $750,000 what with advances, paperback rights, foreign rights (sold so far in England, Germany, Italy, Holland, Japan, France, Spain, Latin America, Sweden and Finland). It is the alternate selection of the Literary Guild and well into its fourth printing.
"Clan" is about the brief period of Ice-Age time when Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man coexisted, as evidence suggests they did. It is the saga of a Cro-Magnon child named Ayla whose parents are swallowed up in an earthquake and who wanders into the lives of a traveling group of Neanderthals.
She is, with her straight legs, sloping forehead and blond hair, as ugly a duckling, as the bow-legged, bettle-browed Neanderthals have seen, but they recognize her as one of "the Others," and accept her because Irz, their accomplished medicine woman, wants her and because Ayla herself performs various propitious acts, mostly accidental -- like discovering a nifty cave for the Neanderthals to settle in.
Ayla and the Neanderthal clan are hunter-gatherers, and Auel, with only a smattering of anthropology and paleontology under her belt, set out to acquire the skills at which her characters are adept.
Auel's "smattering" gave her the direction of her story. She was aware of evidence pointing to the coexistence, at least briefly, of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and of the still unsolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Neanderthals just about the time the Cro-Magnons came on the scene.
From this, Auel found the setting for her series in the Crimea during a period when the great glaciers had temporarily withdrawn, or as Auel's Neanderthals tell it, ". . . Ice mountain left the land and went back to his home in the north, and the great cold left with him. The Sun exulted at his victory and chased him all the way to his northern home . . ."
The cave bear clan folk remember this because Auel decided that their enormous heads, with even greater brain capacity than ours, may indeed have contained less of the intellectual and analytical skills attributed to frontal lobes, but did contain a true racial memory.
This came to her, she said, when the cliche popped into her head, ". . . somewhere in the back of my brain I remember . . ." Auel's Neanderthal race becomes stagnant because the brain cage had expanded to incorporate all this inherited knowledge beyond practicable size.
To make sure that Iza, the Neanderthal medicine woman who befriends the orphaned and injured child, Ayla, was credible, and that, in fact, all her characters were re-created in a manner that might have been, Jean Auel hied herself to the Malheur wildlife refuge in central Oregon, where she took several aboriginal life-skills classes.
"I need to make Iza a character who really knew her field, so with classes in plant identification and reference books on European herbs. I know that everything she used was used that way by somebody somewhere.
"But people are funny about stuff like that. Especially if it sounds good and if they're convinced this medicine woman knew her business . . ."
(Auel's character Iza tests out possible new foods and medicines by eating daily increased amounts of a new plant. If it really tastes terrible, she stops. But if it tastes okay and she doesn't get sick, a new food may have been found. A bit risky, but what are medicine women for?)
In any case, Iza needs all sorts of things to treat beatings, broken bones, poisonous bites, infections, arthritis and rape victims, and she even has contraceptive herbs and abortifacients in her medicine bag.
She gets to use them all. "Cave Bear" is peopled with the likes of J.R. Ewing, Grandpa Walton and Nurse Edith Clavell, and heroine Ayla is a mixture of Wonder Woman, Betty Friedan and Pauline (as in The Perils of).
Jean Auel, who is 44, doesn't do things halfway.
She had five children in six years.
She juggled motherhood and career and was a highly paid credit manager of Tekronix, Inc., the Portland, Ore., electronics firm where her husband still works. She was, and still is, a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society.
For reasons she still cannot fully explain she quit her job just after she and her husband were awarded their master's degrees in business administration four years ago.
And as her children began deserting the nest (ages now range from 19 to 26) Jean Auel found herself a bunch of new children -- 35,000 years old.
Ayla has only just begun her adventures, and it is not at all improbable that Auel will give birth to the same number of books in the same number of years as she did children. Auel has a name ready for the series, of which "Cave Bear" is the first: "Earth's Children."
As she sits here one afternoon with her daughter (a chemist who lives in Baltimore), drinking 20th-century coffee and munching on the nut-flavored dried biscuit root she dug up at Malheur, she muses on its benefits. "It was the main carbohydrate for the Paiute Indians . . . and there are probably similar kinds of roots growing wild throughout the world," she says. "It's just a matter of knowing where to look."
"She's incredible, " sighs daughter RaeAnn."She's always done unusual things, but this . . ."
Auel is bespectacled and round-faced. She is short and rather more round than she would like. She wears her blond hair a tad too long and a tad too uncoiffed to be chic, but she can talk the ears off a woolly mammoth and attacks a typewriter with much the same intensity.
She has a way of evoking the distant past as she describes how the Paiute Indians used dogbane net to catch rabbits during an annual roundup. The cooperative family nets of whole clans stretched more than two miles across the desert.
Or as she hints at the future adventures of Ayla, who, among other things, figures out something the memory-laden Neanderthals never knew throughtout their half-million years of existence. How babies are made.