The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of research, but obviously had to make up and theorize about many things relating to her characters’ thoughts, day-to-day existence, etc. I have no idea how accurate it all is, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is well done, compelling, and often absolutely riveting. It helps that human emotions never really change — quite recognizable in the 1980 novel is the infighting among some of the Neanderthals, the tension between them and adopted Cro-Magnon orphan girl Ayla, the interactions between women and men, the interactions between younger and older characters, and more.

Auel’s book was followed by five sequels in the “Earth’s Children” series.

Another novel set early in human evolution is Jack London’s 1907 book Before Adam, although that setting is in a dream by a modern character tapping into distant ancestral memories. Still, ancient people and their lives are the focus of what is one of London’s lesser — but still interesting — books.

Set not as far back in history but still pretty far is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which unfolds not quite 4,000 years ago in the time of Jacob and Leah. Told from the vantage point of their daughter Dinah, the book obviously relies on the Old Testament (fact, fiction, or both?) for some of its source material even as Diamant uses plenty of imagination to envision the life of the historically little-documented Dinah.

Then there’s Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked, set around the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. This 1985 novel relies a lot on the New Testament (fact, fiction, or both?), but, again, the author makes up plenty of things to help advance the story.

Taking place during roughly the same period, in the early days of the Roman Empire, are the events in Robert Graves’ 1934 novel I, Claudius (perhaps best known for the 1970s TV series). The book is yet another example of partly fictionalized history, as is often the case in works with way-back settings.

Novels you like that were written in modern times yet set long ago?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s elementary schools reopening, a new local LGBTQ organization, and local reaction to another horrific murder of a Black citizen by a white cop — is here.

Book Selections Come From All Directions

With all the novels out there, how do we decide which ones to read?

Throwing darts in the general direction of library or bookstore shelves is one way, but not recommended. If you want a novel with holes, you don’t need darts to end up with Louis Sachar’s…Holes.

Anyway, several factors affect what I choose to read. For one thing, I’ve mostly given up nonfiction books for the time being in order to concentrate on fiction. That helps me read as many novels as possible, and feed this blog! Still, I miss nonfiction books — especially the biographies I used to relish — and eventually might return to them when the U.S. Congress passes a law expanding days to 48 hours.

But how do I pick which novels to read? Many are recommended by family, friends, and of course the literature aficionados who post great comments on this blog. 🙂 Also, if I like one novel by an author, I’m sure to immediately or eventually try others — whether it’s another stand-alone book or the next installment of a series. Familiarity breeds content(ment).

Selecting what I read also takes variety into account — making sure I mix literary and mass-audience fiction, different genres (mustn’t miss the occasional thriller), old classics and contemporary novels, long and short novels, fiction by women and men, fiction by authors of color and white authors, fiction by LGBTQ and straight writers, novels by authors from various countries, novels by authors from various planets… Well, maybe not the last category, but if Ray Bradbury could write The Martian Chronicles, why can’t a Martian wordsmith write The Earthly Chronicles?

Another factor behind what I read involves which titles my local library happens to have on its shelves when I visit. If certain novels on my list aren’t there that day, I immediately move on to others. And sometimes I see a book I had no plans to read (or never heard of) that intrigues me. I think that’s called serendipity; I hope to serendipitously stumble on an online dictionary to know for sure.

Other times, I read about a book or an author in a review or article and become interested. Or I receive a novel as a gift. Also, there are occasions where what I select to read is just kind of random and not really explainable. Finally, there are book-choosing methods that I’ve probably forgotten and thus don’t appear in this blog post. Agatha Christie wrote Elephants Can Remember, but that doesn’t mean human bloggers always do.

How do you choose which books to read?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which opposes an unpopular annual standardized test — is here.

COVID Causes Comical Fiction Revision

Is that a big syringe rather than a harpoon Queequeg is holding?

We’re sure to see many future novels that are about COVID or at least mention COVID. Until then, we’ll have to make do with revising the plots of classics…

Moby-Dick, pandemic edition: Captain Ahab learns that M-D the whale has contracted the coronavirus, and embarks on an obsessive sea voyage that enables harpooner Queequeg to hurl a huge Moderna-vaccine-filled syringe into the flipper of said whale.

Middlemarch, pandemic edition: Dorothea Brooke gets her first Pfizer shot in February, and, in an effort to remember that her second shot is scheduled for the 15th of the following month, successfully lobbies local leaders to change the name of her town from Earlyapril to…

Bleak House, pandemic edition: Things get kind of…bleak when characters from every Dickens novel have to quarantine together in a…house after an ill-advised American tour led by Martin Chuzzlewit. When the group orders food online from FreshDirect, Oliver Twist tells the deliverer: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Crime and Punishment, pandemic edition: Raskolnikov denies killing two people, claiming they died of the coronavirus after flying Anachronism Airlines from St. Petersburg to Trump’s COVID-protocol-ignoring White House. Sonya starts to wonder if Raskolnikov is capable of redemption.

A Farewell to Arms, pandemic edition: After Hemingway’s protagonists say goodbye to their upper limbs, they have no arms left for getting jabbed with the COVID vaccine. But they still have legs to run with the bulls in Pamplona, where one never-stationary bull earns the nickname “A Moveable Beast.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, pandemic edition. But their noses and mouths weren’t doing much of anything behind those light-blue disposable masks.

Of Human Bondage, pandemic edition: Philip and Mildred get tangled in one of the aforementioned masks and live unhappily ever after.

Far from the Madding Crowd, pandemic edition: Being far from ANY crowd makes it easier for Thomas Hardy’s characters to social-distance, even as the mayor of Casterbridge allows restaurants and fitness centers to reopen too soon.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, pandemic edition: The ultimate in social-distancing, lasting a century.

The Yearling, pandemic edition: Life in 1870s Florida gets more exciting for young Jody Baxter and his fawn when the National Basketball Association moves its COVID-truncated season to a “bubble” near Orlando, after which LeBron James and the fawn shoot a beer commercial.

Anne of Avonlea, pandemic edition: In the first Anne of Green Gables sequel, Anne Shirley experiences some frustration teaching online after her school closes due to COVID. Anne lives in the 19th century, so barely half of her students have WiFi.

The Count of Monte Cristo, pandemic edition: Edmond Dantès escapes the Chateau d’If island prison and sets out to wreak vengeance against the men who framed him for the theft of Napoleon’s laminated vaccination card.

Any pandemic-related revisions you’d like to suggest for famous novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which has an April Fools theme befitting its April 1 publishing date — is here.