SBHM Guest: Alexa Rowan on Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters

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

The Mammoth HuntersThanks 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 Hunterswhich 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 carveras 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!

4 thoughts on “SBHM Guest: Alexa Rowan on Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters

  1. Amanda Usen

    I also read that series as a teenager! I remember Ranec but until you reminded me, I forgot he was dark-skinned. I was mostly paying attention to the purple prose, not the black skin! LOL. I’m white and would definitely be considered “privileged,” and it’s difficult to discuss race without accidentally sounding like a jerk because of un/subconscious stereotypes. When I become conscious of them, if I have them, I blow them up. Anyway, a favorite SF short-story of mine by Anne McCaffrey has a yellow-green skinned character. Do you think people unconsciously suspend their prejudice when the world is completely different from their own, i.e. the Pleistocene era or another planet?

    Reply
    1. Alexa Rowan

      Hi Amanda, thank you for such an insightful comment. I definitely think that world-building can impact whether an individual’s conscious or unconscious biases/stereotypes/etc. come into play. I think that the more a reader believes they know about a “world,” the more likely they are to import their existing beliefs into that world’s structure and culture. It’s easier to suspend “disbelief” about character interactions or the world’s culture when characters are yellow-green or blue-skinned or otherwise clearly alien or living in a different cultural construct than those we’re familiar with, than it is in a contemporary or Regency setting where readers have strong existing beliefs about how that world works and the way people of different races would interact in it.

      And it’s great to meet another Anne McCaffrey fan! I’m curious, which story of hers are you referring to? I’m a big fan of her Pern and Crystal Singer series (read them all multiple times, wrote silly teenaged fanfic involving Impressing fire lizards of my own *ahem*), and after reading your comment I was thinking about her books that I’ve read. I can’t think of a single non-white character in the earlier books in the Pern series (I stopped reading after they stopped being so good), or any of the Harper Hall or Crystal Singer books. Can you?

      My husband and I have talked about this, and many of Anne McCaffrey’s worlds are very hierarchically structured, often involving color (not skin color, though) as designating where within the hierarchy someone fits. The dragons have a hierarchy based on color, and their riders also fit into that hierarchy, with a queen (gold) rider and the rider of that queen’s bronze mate as the weyrleaders for that weyr. Crystal singers are respected more if they cut black or other more valuable/rare crystals, and singers who cut more common rose crystal are lower down the totem pole. Even if race is not how Anne McCaffrey’s worlds are stratified (I do recall that the Heavyworlders were looked down upon in the Dinosaur Planet books, though), she often still uses similar class-based constructs in her worlds.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
    1. Alexa Rowan

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know if I’d want to reread any of that series now, as an adult, even though they certainly have stuck with me for a very long time. Are there any books you read as a teen that you think probably wouldn’t hold up to the worldview you hold now?

      Reply

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