No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 03, 2012

2012/02: 11,000 Years Lost -- Peni R. Griffin

I know more than all the archaeologists in the world, she thought. I know what mammoth hunters eat when they're not hunting mammoths, and what they do when they're sick, and what stories they tell when it rains. To them, life was about finding food and having babies. Everything else -- stories, singing, science, games -- fit inside those two things, or didn't exist. (p.173)

The protagonist of 11,000 Years Lost is Esther, an archaeology-mad eleven-year-old Texan girl. She's fascinated by the local dig, where Dr. Durham and her team are excavating the remains of a campsite used by the Clovis people some eleven thousand years ago. Esther even makes a find of her own: a Clovis spearpoint. Possibly influenced by her excitement, Esther begins to hear voices, to see things. Then there's a heat-haze shimmer in the air, and she follows the sound of girls' voices into ... the distant past.

As time-travel novels go, this is at once simplistic and intriguing. Esther is accepted into the nomadic group she encounters, though she struggles with language and culture. She's seen by some as a source of luck -- wizikat -- and by others as a threat. Her prophecies concerning the eventual extinction of mammoths, and her anecdotes about life 'in the stars' (her best explanation for where she came from), are indulged but don't affect the lives of those around her. She's certainly not in a position to teach these people much, either, though she does come up with a novel approach to conflict resolution. And the difference she does make is a tiny tragedy, something objectively insignificant that hits Esther hard.

There was no word for 'home' in this language. (p.217)

The past, it turns out, is not a comfortable place. Esther adjusts surprisingly quickly to the lack of sanitation, the unpredictability of food supplies, and the roles and expectations of girls in Clovis society. She's less flexible about death and mourning rituals (Griffiths doesn't pull her punches here) and there's a real sense of shock when Esther sees her first mammoth and realises just how different and dangerous is the world into which she's wandered.

"Accuracy is good but the story comes first," says the author in her afternote. There is a lot of research underpinning this novel -- everything from hypothetical funerary customs to the diet of the mammoth -- but it doesn't overwhelm the story. Griffiths' focus is on the humanity of the Clovis group: their characterisation is relatively simple, but each individual has traits and tics, actions and reactions.

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