Twenty thousand years ago, a courageous girl lived in Siberia near Woman Lake, a place you won’t find on any modern map. Only thirteen, Yanan and her companions—hunters of deer, gatherers of roots and twigs—struggle to survive the harsh realities of hunger and cold, bound by an unending cycle of birth, kinship, violence, and death.
As Yanan recounts the terrible adventures of her brief life, she departs on spirit journeys that evoke the lives of the animals to which she and her people are intimately linked. A lyrical novel of our species’ prehistory, Reindeer Moon opens up corridors to the imagination that lead us back to the long-forgotten echoes of our distant human past.
“Unforgettable . . . Reindeer Moon beautifully resurrects a lost world of merciless magnificence. Dozens of memorable characters live and die in this moving tale, which should become a classic.” —Chicago Tribune Book World
“Those familiar with the author’s landmark study, The Harmless People, will not be surprised at the range of anthropological information she brings to her first novel, or at the lucidity of her prose. What will astonish, engross and move readers in her narrative of a group of hunter-gatherers who lived 20,000 years ago is the dramatic immediacy of the story and the depth and range of character development.” —Publishers Weekly
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My name was yanan and my story began where it ended, in Graylag's lodge on the highest terrace above the north bank of the Char River. The lodge was big, with two smokeholes instead of one, and very well made, the best I've ever seen. Graylag built it with his three brothers before his brothers died, while they were all still young. The pit of the floor was dug deep. The walls were braced with the legbones of mammoths, which in turn were braced with boulders and wound with spruce branches tied on with strips of reindeer hide, which shrinks when wet, so wind didn't move the lodge and rain didn't make it leak. Water drew it tight.
The arch of the roof was made of cast antlers forced together as if the deer were fighting, and was so high that only a few of the men had to stoop when they stood up. Over the spruce branches and antlers were hides, and over the hides were strips of sod. The lodge was so strong that people, or any amount of snow, could stand on it without breaking it, and so thick that weather came in only through the smokeholes. Thieving animals never came in, since we kept a dead spruce to pull, butt end first, into the door of the coldtrap.
On top of the lodge Graylag and his brothers put a wonderful thing, a group of very long antlers from huge spotted deer almost never seen around the Char. Each antler was almost as long as the lodge, and standing on it, they looked like a grove of birch on a low hill, or like a herd of spotted deer lying down. The antlers stood out against the sky and could be seen far up and down the river — a sight that always told us we were reaching home.
Behind the lodge, a low cliff rose to the plain, so storms from the north blew over us and the south-facing rock cast sunlight on the lodge all day. Below the lodge, other terraces fell away to the floodplain of the river, where roe deer and sometimes horses browsed the willow scrub. The river was fast and shallow, and rushed around boulders so, except in the coldest part of winter, holes of open water showed in the ice. From our lookout in front of the lodge, we could watch for red deer or horses or reindeer following their trails down the terraces to drink.
On the south side of the river grew a wide spruce forest where bearded lichen hung from the little trees. In winter we hunted the reindeer who sheltered among the trees eating the lichen until The Woman Ohun sent them on their long spring walk back to the open plains. The forest was crossed through and through with trails, those made by reindeer and also by us, since in winter Graylag made the young people of the lodge gather firewood every day.
In the east, where the river rose, stood a range of hills with larches and pines on their south slopes. The hills were far, almost half a day's walk from the lodge, yet when Graylag and the other men could not kill reindeer, we went to these hills to gather pine nuts and to look for the dens of sleeping bears. When we dug out a bear and killed it, its meat fed us for a long time, perhaps the length of a moon.
In the west, the Char River joined the Black River and ran north. Every spring, when the reindeer were gone and pine-singers filled the woods across the river, when deerflies and mosquitoes filled the lodge, when the terrace stank from our feces and other foul things that lay thawing in the melting snow, we followed the rivers to the steppe to find the reindeer again. There, on the banks of the Grass River, we camped together with many other people from lodges far from ours, lodges belonging to Graylag's kin on the upper and lower Black River.
Graylag owned the winter hunting for many days' walk in any direction along the Char. He and his kinsmen owned the summer hunting everywhere on the huge steppe drained by the Grass River. Wherever Graylag went, we followed, because he owned the meat.
The handsign for headman is the raised right thumb. All my life this sign made me think of Graylag, because like a thumb he was short and strong. I've been told that his first wife was also short, but I never saw her, since she died before I was born. His next two wives were his brothers' widows, both as tall as he. The other men were taller. But as the right thumb is the strongest, most important finger, Graylag was the most important of us. He was also the eldest, with white hairs in his beard and at his temples. And he seemed tall, standing straight with his chin raised as if he faced the wind.
Clasped hands are the sign for a lodge, for marriage, and for strength, since the fingers are the joined antlers of a roof and also the joined people who live under it. So I will show with my hands about the other people of our lodge and how we lived together.
The hand palm down with fingers spread is the sign for men. If I count the grown men of the lodge on the backs of my fingers, I find eight. On my right hand I find a man on every finger — Graylag himself, his two sons, Timu and Elho, his brother's son, Raven, and his daughter's husband, Crane. On my left hand I find Father and his nephews, The Stick and his brother, The Frog.
The hand palm up with thumb and fingers tight together is the sign for women, water, and berries. So I count the grown women on the pads of my fingers and find six. On the first and second fingers of my right hand I find Graylag's two wives — Ina, who was Father's sister, and Teal, who was a shaman. On the third finger is Graylag's daughter, Owl, and on the fourth finger is his nephew's wife, Bisti. On my left hand are Father's two wives — my mother, Lapwing, and her sister, my Aunt Yoi.
Fingernails are the sign for children, because nails look like children's faces in the hoods of their parkas. On my fingernails I find five children, two on the left hand for me and my spoiled sister, Meri, and one each on the right hand for Junco, for her brother, White Fox, who was almost grown, and for Graylag's little grandson, a baby born to Owl.
Those were the people of our lodge, the people I've shown on my fingers. Now I clench my fists, because a fist is the sign for fire. As I have two fists, in our lodge were two fires. One was at the back, in the warm end, and the other was in the front, in the cold end by the door. The people named on my right hand slept at Graylag's fire in the back, because they were Graylag's family and Graylag owned the lodge, while the people named on my left hand slept at Father's fire by the door, because they were Father's family and Father was just the brother of one of Graylag's wives.
Men own the meat, so men own the places where we find meat — the hunting grounds, the lodges, and the hearths inside. Women own the families, the lineages. The people of a lineage are not joined to a place, but like milkweed seeds are scattered over the world of the living or clustered in the Camps of the Dead.
So the opening fist is the handsign for lineage and also for milkweed. As my fists open I see my own lineage, the largest in the lodge. Some of us are on my left hand — Mother, her sister, my sister, and I. Others are on my right hand — Graylag's younger wife, Teal, and their son, Elho. Mother and Teal belong together because their mothers were sisters. Before them, their mothers' mother had sisters who had children, and these people too were in our lineage, but they didn't live on the Char. I didn't even know them.
Again I open my fists. Now I see Father's lineage — Father and his sister, Ina, elder wife of Graylag, with her two grown sons, Henno The Stick and Kamas The Frog. Again I open my fists, and again and again. My fists are like milkweed pods with a few seeds clinging. Seven times I find lineages in Graylag's lodge. In the sixth lineage I find Owl and Timu, two of Graylag's children, and Owl's little baby, Graylag's only grandchild. But in the last lineage I find, like a single seed caught by its tuft of hair, just one person — Graylag himself, alone since the death of his brothers.
Again I clasp both hands, making the sign for a lodge. Again in my hands are strength and marriage, our group with our lineages joined. So we are solid. So the locked antlers in our roof make the lodge solid over our heads. And so Graylag's people of my right hand and Father's people of my left hand once lived together.
When I was a girl, I liked our lodge the way it was and was satisfied with the people in it. But the grown people were not satisfied, since some of our men had only one wife, some had no wife, and some were widowed. My cousins, The Stick and The Frog, once had wives and even children who were drowned crossing Char Lake, snatched under the spring ice by The Woman Ohun.
By listening to the grown people one night in winter, a night I remember very well, I learned that our men could not find wives among the women we met in summer when we followed the reindeer to the steppe. The women we met there were married or else were in the same lineages as our men, with mothers who were sisters, or mothers' mothers, or even grandmothers' mothers. So said the adults who crowded together, sitting on their heels around Father's fire.
This surprised me. On summer nights Graylag's sons, Timu and Elho, often visited two women secretly to have coitus with them. Thinking that everyone knew, I reminded the adults of those women. "What about Tunne and Lilan?" I asked.
The words were not out of my mouth before the adults fell silent. Roundeyed like owls, they stiffly turned their firelit faces toward me, making me feel I had said far too much. Father stared. Mother showed me the palm of her hand, threatening to slap if I said more. And Aunt Yoi very stealthily reached down in the dark where no one could see to give me a terrible pinch that brought tears to my eyes and left a blue mark on my thigh for days after.
Graylag, however, looked sideways at his sons. "I hope my kinsmen know less about their wives than Yanan knows," he said.
"Some things are better unknown," said Father.
Speechless at first, Elho and Timu soon began shouting. "Yanan shouldn't speak until she gets sense!" cried Timu. "Are we animals, that a child talks about us freely?" I tossed my head to show him I thought nothing of his words. "You must be an animal! You look like an animal!" I said.
For this Mother clapped her hands loudly like a slap, so I dropped my eyes to show I would be quiet. But as the adults began talking again, I stole a glance around the fire, thinking that the other children might have liked my joke. Just as I hoped, Junco and White Fox were snickering at Timu. Only my little sister wasn't laughing. Ready to nurse at any moment, she sat between Mother's knees, face to face with the two bare breasts in Mother's open shirt. Too young to like my wit and daring, Meri looked triumphant, as if Mother had really slapped me.
In their usual way, the adults must have decided to overlook what I said, to pretend nothing had happened. Very soon they took up the talk of summergrounds again, and then I heard something I didn't like at all. We might not follow the reindeer to the Grass River this summer, but might visit some campsites at the place where the Fire River drains Woman Lake. There, people were saying, we might find unmarried women.
Anxiously, I listened to the adults. I knew very little about that place except that some people from our lineage lived there and it was very far. I hoped we wouldn't go. No one likes strangers, and to me all the people would be strangers, kin or not. But the adults were now counting the quarter moons we might see along the way. A decision had been made. We were going!
What about the distance? I wanted to ask. It took us almost the length of a moon to reach our summer campsite on the Grass River. To reach the Fire River would take much longer. I hated to think of walking so far, crushed by the weight of a heavy pack while my sister sneered down at me from her place on Father's shoulders. I hated to think of the number of days we would spend hungry, cold, and wet, bitten by mosquitoes and scratched by heather. All this only so that men could find wives? Why couldn't the unmarried men go by themselves?
Sad, I wanted to ask Mother if we really had to walk so far. But Mother was cross with me now, and I knew better than to speak. Instead I listened, and heard more. Not only would men find wives, but we would tie ourselves to their fathers' lodges. This would be good, said Graylag. Who could say why or when we might need to use new hunting grounds?
We would also collect presents owed us from a marriage exchange. Many of us had been promised presents for the marriage of Graylag's daughter, Owl. Graylag was owed an obsidian knife. Owl's brother, Timu, was owed ivory beads already carved and drilled for stringing. Owl herself was owed amber beads and special rainbow feathers from the necks of Woman teals, the birds who nest in the reeds by Woman Lake. Years had passed, and no one had seen those presents. This year we would get them at last.
Mother sighed. "It's been so long since we visited our kin at the Fire River that we don't know who's dead or who's living," she said. "Perhaps our people don't use their old summerground. If not, how will we find them?"
Father answered. "Won't they make trails? Won't their fires smoke? We'll find them the same way Graylag and his brothers found women when they went to the Fire River. The same way we found you. We just went. There we found you. You didn't hide from us."
"Do you expect to find three unmarried women at the Fire River?" asked Teal. "Three women are too many to expect."
Three? That also surprised me. I thought at least four men — Timu, Elho, The Stick, and The Frog — had no wives. Not to mention White Fox. But I knew I shouldn't ask questions, so I listened, hoping that Teal would name the men.
She didn't. "Perhaps my son won't find a wife there," she went on, speaking of Elho. "Too many people at the Fire River are in our lineage."
Then everyone began to talk, naming the women they remembered at the Fire River and tracing their lineages. I was bored by the talk, since most of the people named seemed to be dead. The only lineage I knew was my own, and at that, just the people of our lodge. Also, the only one of us being mentioned was Elho. If he couldn't find a wife, I didn't care. I waited for the talk to turn to Timu, hoping to hear that no wife could be found for him either. But the talk of lineages passed over Timu to Father's nephews, The Stick and The Frog.
Graylag interrupted the long lists of names. "You must expect trouble finding unmarried women," he said to Teal. "You talk as if trouble surprised you. If finding husbands and wives was easy, we wouldn't have to give so many presents to our in-laws."
"We give too many presents," said Timu. "And for what?" He gave me an angry look I didn't understand. "I've heard of men who don't give presents. Those men capture their wives!" "Horses do that, not people!" cried Teal.
"Capture!" said Graylag. "Listen to him! Take care, Son! One of those big hungry women at the Grass River will pick you up and run away with you."
Now everyone laughed at Timu, me most of all. Even my sister, Meri, showed all her little teeth, although she didn't understand why. But Timu looked ashamed. He hadn't meant to joke, but to remind us of other people's customs. So Graylag put an arm around Timu's shoulders and said in his kindly way, "We must all wait for wives. Yours is growing every day. Soon you will sleep in her deerskin, and my kinsmen at the Grass River will be glad."
People laughed again, but I was startled. Timu had a wife? Was that why his name wasn't in the talk of lineage? Curious, I pulled at Mother's sleeve. When she looked down I whispered, "Timu's wife — who is she?"
Mother blinked in mild surprise. "Why, Yanan," she said, "she's you!"
I must have shown how much this shocked me. Mother looked at me strangely. Suddenly my face grew hot, and I leaned back from the fire so the light wouldn't shine on me. I wanted to hide until my thoughts stopped spinning.
I didn't want to be married at all, and here I was and hadn't known. Couldn't someone have bothered to tell me? I looked at Timu across the fire. You? The skin began to crawl on the backs of my thighs. He would make me have coitus with him! His arms would pin my elbows and his breath would smother me! A baby would grow inside me until I suffered as I had seen other women suffer! I would bleed! I could die!
I looked up at the bleached antlers in the arch of the roof, their sharp tines white in the firelight. Usually I saw life and strength when I looked at the antlers, but that night I saw rutting and fighting. I looked at all the many things wedged among the tines — Father's hafted greenstone ax, Mother's flint knife, Aunt Yoi's ivory necklace that she never let me wear or even touch, a necklace given her by Timu's sister, Owl, in a marriage exchange. Perhaps my marriage exchange! Suddenly tears filled my eyes. Surely I was the person exchanged for that necklace! Who else but me? And Aunt wouldn't let me touch it! Nobody cared what I wanted or thought! I would die in childbirth while people praised Aunt Yoi for the necklace.
Excerpted from "Reindeer Moon"
Copyright © 1987 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
THE MOON OF WALKING,
THE REINDEER MOON,
Sources and Acknowledgments,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story of an ordinary (if rather strong and feisty) young woman living sometime during the last ice age, as related by her after she has died and become a guardian spirit. Despite the supernatural element, which works surprisingly well, the story is mostly concerned with very ordinary things: births, deaths, the little scandals and quarrels of small groups of people living in close quarters, and the never-ending search for food. But it's consistently interesting and very readable, partly because it's just plain fascinating to try to imagine what kind of lives our ancestors might have led twenty thousand years ago, and partly because the characters feel so believable and so recognizably human.The cover blurb declares that it's "for everyone who loved The Clan of the Cave Bear!" It's been a long, long time since I read that one, but I'm willing to venture the opinion that this book is the better of the two. It's certainly better than The Valley of Horses, which is the point where I gave up on Auel.
Wow this is absolutely Brilliant material. I dont agree with the ways of the people in the book they took animal forms etc. But its just fiction but the way this lady writes is really amazing. Not one sentence was boring and you can see someone who really loves and knows animals.Good writing just a culture I dont agree with. I suppose it was becuase they were primitive and had not yet found Salvation.
Could not put this book down. It was amazing. Reminded me a lot of "The Clan of the Cave Bear" series. If you liked those books, you will love this one. In some ways, this one was almost better. The story pulls you in from the opening pages. Brought out every possible emotion from me.
Was very happy with the novel.