Hi friends! We’re kicking off another year of Smithsonian Heritage Month celebrations, and as you might know this year I’ve decided to expand things even further. Our first guest is Alexis Rowan who kindly answered my call to talk about the first book she remembered reading that featured a Black main character. Let’s give her a warm welcome! <3
It’s Hard To Get More Historical Than The Pleistocene
Thanks so much to Limecello for opening up ALBTALBS to guest posters during the Smithsonian National Heritage months—and for celebrating diversity by encouraging the book-loving (and especially, the romance-loving) community to discuss authors and characters of color.
For Black History Month, Lime posed the question, what is the first book you remember reading with a black character? And while I’m sure I must have read something else prior to this, the book with a black character that has stuck in my mind since its publication in the mid-1980s is Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters, which is book 3 in her Pleistocene-era epic series of six massive books. Mammoth Hunters saw the introduction of Ranec, a “dark-skinned, magnetic master ivory carver” as the third corner in a love triangle with blond and blue-eyed Ayla at its apex and equally Caucasian Jondalar as her existing love interest.
Ranec’s Caucasian father had travelled far to the South, where he “mated” (married?) a woman whose skin was “almost as black as night” and had a son with her, but she died during their long journey back to his people. Auel portrays Ranec in a positive light (unless one interprets Ranec’s interest in Ayla as creepy/obsessive—teenaged me didn’t). He’s considered to be attractive within his otherwise-Caucasian community, and his unusual skin color is admired. And while he’s got a (stereotypically?) strong sex drive, he’s also got mad skillz beyond the pre-historic bedroom.
Teenaged-me didn’t think twice about Ranec’s skin color, or that Ayla and Ranec became a couple. I’ve done a little research for this blog post, and I didn’t find any contemporaneous discussion of this as an interracial relationship, or that it was considered to be controversial or shocking. Rather, the reviews and commentary I found focused on Auel’s craft (e.g., plot flaws, shallow character arcs, Ayla’s annoying character traits and having invented damn near everything), her penchant for minute detail and lovingly researched scenes, and her purple prose (which, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, teenaged me thought was pretty hot!).
Ultimately, teenaged me felt badly for Ranec, who was ready to be mated with Ayla when she and Jondalar had their long-overdue conversation and resolved their protracted misunderstanding. I suppose it’s hard to compete with a man as well-hung and talented in the sexual arts (and blue-eyed) as Jondalar, the itinerant deflowerer ;-). Is it problematic, that Ayla threw over the character of color for the couldn’t-possibly-be-more-Caucasian guy? Given the context of the book, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say no, at least from my (privileged) perspective. I’d love to hear from others with differing opinions, though. Auel’s Pleistocene-era setting describes an inter-species divide between the Clan (Neanderthals) and the Others (Cro-Magnons); within the Cro-Magnons, racial differences were ignored as irrelevant or were appreciated, not vilified. So the relationship between Ayla and Ranec was something teenaged me took at face value, yet Ayla’s getting back together with someone she loved and had intense chemistry with (Jondalar) also made sense for reasons unrelated to race. I found only one contemporaneous reviewer who commented on the fact that it was the two “blond, blue-eyed beauties” who end up riding off into the sunset with each other.
That said, if Ayla had chosen to stay with Ranec and sent Jondalar on his merry way, the series would have ended. And when you sell out a million-copy first hardcover printing, as Mammoth Hunters did, you plan as extensive a series as you can write. Right?
Have you read The Mammoth Hunters? What did you think of the love triangle and Ranec’s position in it?
I’m curious too! I’ve actually never even heard of this book until now – but I definitely think there are other things we can speak to – books we loved as children that might not stand up to a re-reading – not because of writing style, but because of the content, yes? Let’s discuss!