This year, I decided to embark on a Summer Listening project, re-experiencing two of my favorite stories in audiobook form.
Music of the Unicorns
Book 2 of The Unicorn Chronicles quartet (reviewed here) is my favorite, mostly because I love when authors create their own folk songs or ballads — it’s one of my favorite features of world-building — and also because the song in question is a magic spell, and my inner siren thinks that’s just an awesome idea.
Of course, I had my own idea of what the “Song of the Wanderer” sounded like:
…but I was extremely curious about Bruce Coville’s intention, so when I saw that my library has a digital copy of the audiobook, I did not hesitate.
One download later, I was caught up in the enchanting performance of Bruce Coville and the Full Cast Family. To hear each of the characters brought to life — from gentle Cara to wise M’Gama to sardonic Medafil to the terrifying Ebillan to the mischievous Squijum — was wonderful! Foooor the most part. I’ll admit, I expected the Squijum to sound more like an Ewok and less like the fake!Aang from “Ember Island Players” (imagine the Squijum squealing, “No! Lightfoot! What did they DO to you?!“)
And I expected Grimwold the dwarf to sound more gruff and dignified, whereas the first few minutes of his voice gave me Pee Wee Herman “This is crack” flashbacks.
But then… I reached Chapter 13… and heard Bruce Coville’s full version of “Song of the Wanderer” for the first time, as sung by Grimwold and Thomas the Tinker. And, suddenly, Grimwold’s voice sounded lovely and melancholy. He and Thomas made the Song sound like an authentic folk ballad, the kind sung around a campfire or in an old pub. In fact, it gave me flashbacks to old Lithuanian ballads sung at the Bard Festival or around the fire pit at my cousins’ house.
And then, I heard the refrain sung by the young Wanderer herself, and fell even more in love. I still like my own version best, but it’s only ahead by the tip of a nose. I couldn’t find the right audiobook clip on YouTube, so here it is in my own voice:
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Legends around a cave fire
My second audiobook adventure took me back to Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, Book 1 in the Earth’s Children series. Now, some might say I was too young, at fourteen, to delve into a series that does naaawt shy away from describing the facts of life in graphic, intimate detail (not so much in Cave Bear, though, which is why I feel comfortable discussing it on a Juv/YA blog). I admit, I had trouble listening to the first few chapters of The Valley of Horses without thinking, Why does my face feel so sunburned? I’m wearing SPF 50!
But perhaps it was good that I read Auel’s books when I was too young for them. I was much more forgiving of things like expositioney dialogue and exaggerated character portrayals (Holy Gary Stu Heartthrobs, Batman! Is there at least one female in all of Ice Age Europe who isn’t fainting over Jondalar???). Fourteen-year-old Nerija was far too busy being enthralled by the Mother Earth Goddess cultures and the elaborate Clan sign language system and the spiritual ceremonies that allow participants to see into the distant past and future and OMG The Destiny of it All and also ZOMG Ayla/Jondalar Forever!!!
Anyhoo, listening to Sandra Burr’s narration of Cave Bear reminded me after just a few chapters why Book 1 was always closest to my heart. I felt like Ayla herself, listening to her favorite bittersweet-yet-hopeful legend as told by one of the Clan elders on long winter nights. I rooted for her all over again as she secretly taught herself to hunt, as she struggled to survive a winter month alone in the woods, as she found ways both subtle and brazen to defy Broud’s bullying.
At the same time, I actually felt more pity for Broud, now that I could understand his behavior from a 2019 perspective, with “Me Too” vocabulary. Broud is the ultimate embodiment of his culture’s toxic conception of masculinity — his fear and insecurity grew to such destructive levels because he was taught that he wasn’t allowed to feel such intense emotions in the first place. Especially about a woman.
Men were supposed to be so superior to women that it wasn’t even conceivable that a man would feel threatened by a woman, let alone actively pit himself against her. Instead of helping Broud work through his emotions — to get to their root* and find a better way forward — Brun (the clan’s leader and mate of Broud’s mother) kept encouraging Broud to master his feelings. Which just caused them to fester and explode.
This is not to say that Broud wasn’t ultimately responsible for his own reactions and decisions; none of the other men in Brun’s clan behaved the way he did. Most of them were perfectly decent human beings, including Brun himself. Brun grew to grudgingly respect Ayla as he realized that her taboo-breaking idiosyncrasies were actually in the best interests of the clan. But the men’s ultra-patriarchal attitudes toward masculinity and femininity did ultimately enable Broud’s bullying.
Overall, The Clan of the Cave Bear is a complicated, bittersweet elegy for the Neanderthal species, and it’s one of my favorite girl-powered novels, with messages that (unfortunately) are still relevant 10,000 years later.
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* Though…maybe telling Broud that his hatred of Ayla stemmed from a subconscious existential dread of his people’s impending extinction wouldn’t have helped. Probably would’ve just pissed him off more.
Onward: 90s teen mag nostalgia