The Last Matriarch

Sharman Apt Russell, Author
Sharman Apt Russell, Author University of New Mexico Press $19.95 (200p) ISBN 978-0-8263-2131-2
Reviewed on: 01/03/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
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In the tradition of Jean Auel, this well-researched novel authentically recreates the world of the Clovis people, hunters and gatherers who lived on the Southwestern plains of North America more than 11,000 years ago. Willow, one of the clan elders, tells the story of her youth, a time when abundant bison, camels, mammoths and lions roamed. After her husband, Jak, is killed by a mammoth during a hunt, the strong-willed Willow is obliged to become the second wife of Etol, Jak's brother, who can provide for her children, Ali and Chi. Each spring, the group travels to perform tribal rites and meet with healers, shamans and storytellers. Here they connect with other camps, in friendship, trade or competition, often finding mates for their offspring. Central to the lives of these prehistoric people is an intuitive communication with the natural world; for example, Willow hears the history of Half Ear, a great woolly mammoth who is the matriarch of her herd, through a necklace made of the animal's ivory. Other tales that mirror Willow's are told through beads, bear skins and plants; these are beautifully used to diversify the narrative, making poetic, imaginative statements about the harmonious relationship humans and nature once enjoyed. But in this wild environment, the death rate is high; bears and lions snatch away children, women die in childbirth and men are killed in stampedes. Living to a rare old age of 60, Willow reflects on the changing relationship between her family and the plains. ""Now the land itself seemed to ripple, shimmering with emptiness. These children had never seen a tapir. They had never seen a mammoth."" Russell (Song of the Fluteplayer, etc.) mournfully but responsibly addresses the mystery of how so many large land animals at the close of the Pleistocene era became extinct, and intelligently speculates on how humans interacted with these vanished species and each other, and how they faced the inexorable transformation of the land. (Mar.)
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