Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Reindeer Moon
The Animal Wife

Houghton Mifflin 1987, HarperCollins 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife are coming of age stories set in Siberia during the Paleolithic. In Reindeer Moon Yanan, a headstrong young girl, survives alone with her younger sister when their parents die, then faces marriage, childbirth, and the struggle for position and status within her group. In The Animal Wife a young man named Kori leaves his mother to join his father's group and begins to learn the skills of hunting and dealing with women — until his abduction of a foreign woman disrupts their lives.

Thomas has produced a superb depiction of a hunter-gatherer community, drawing not just on her background as an anthropologist but on first-hand fieldwork experience. She captures the complexities of kinship relationships and shamanic religious belief as well as the mechanics of day to day life, incorporating them without artifice into her story. Her recreation of the prehistoric setting is equally convincing. (My only query here is that the scale on her map suggests population densities of a few hundred people per million square kilometres, which seems too low.) Thomas even offers an unusual vision of the animal life of the era: in Reindeer Moon she employs the surprisingly effective device of having the spirits of the dead enter into animals, albeit only epiphenomenally to the main story. (This is an interest which also shows itself in her popular works about cats and dogs.)

Thomas makes no concessions to modern sensibilities. A trapped mammoth left with her front legs smashed for later dispatch, the unhappy fate of an orphan without close kin, the lack of ceremony surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, the extremities of hunger — such things are shocking at first, though one is skillfully drawn into accepting them as ordinary. But if the world Thomas portrays is far removed from anything in our experience, the people she describes are nevertheless H. sapiens sapiens, fully human, and she is a first-class novelist by any criteria. Her characters are memorable, distinctive, and convincing — comparable to anything to be found in fiction. Thomas has transcended the confines of genre, leaving her competitors in the "Paleolithic novel" stakes — even writers as good as Golding and KurtĂ©n — looking weak.

If all ethnography is fiction, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife demonstrate that fiction can be ethnography. As a demonstration of both the extent of human diversity and the universality of central human concerns, I think they are more effective than any ethnographic study or anthropology text.

August 1996

External links:
Reindeer Moon
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
The Animal Wife
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- more ethnographic fiction
%T Reindeer Moon
%A Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall
%I Houghton Mifflin
%D 1987
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0395421128
%P 338pp

%T The Animal Wife
%A Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall
%I HarperCollins
%D 1991
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0006179150
%P 384pp