Reindeer Moon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Reindeer Moon is the first novel by respected anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. A lifetime of study in anthropology and animal behavior as well as five years of research and writing stand behind the narrative. Such experience and labor give considerable authority to this speculative representation of human life in the Stone Age. While this detailed portrait of Paleolithic life is more prosaic than some recent novels about prehistoric humanity, its authenticity is compelling.

Yanan narrates her life at two stages. She covers approximately her last five years, during which she becomes sexually mature, marries, and dies bearing twins, one of whom is stillborn. Within this narration are interspersed episodes from her spirit life during the three years after her death. As a spirit, she serves the shamans of her lodge. In these episodes she becomes local animals—wolf, mammoth, lion, bear, and various birds—and learns something of their inner lives. This second stage of her experience helps her to understand her physical life, especially the importance of interdependence and cooperation.

Her physical life is structured by journeys, following game between summer and winter grounds. These journeys are essential for survival, yet the travel is hard on mothers and children. Yanan’s mother dies in childbirth while traveling between camps, and her new sister dies soon after. The first child of Yanan’s co-wife also dies on a trek. As groups become smaller, survival becomes more difficult. When her father is dying of an infected animal bite, the remaining relatives desert Yanan and Meri to join a larger group. The girls survive that winter only because they are adopted by a wolf, but Yanan is slow to learn the lessons of interdependence and cooperation.

Having survived this ordeal and successfully returned to her remaining kin, Yanan comes of age and marries. During the following winter, tensions mount in her lodge. The sources of these tensions reveal much about the conditions of their lives.

One source of tension is the merging of two groups of people. Though they have intermarried in the past, Graylag’s and Swift’s groups have been separated for so long that their pronunciation has varied. Swift’s group is also fair in complexion while Graylag’s is dark. Such differences breed distrust. In winter, food, clothing, and fuel are always difficult to obtain. The mechanics of getting and sharing resources create tension. The weather forces all the people to share living quarters and fire as well as other items, and forced intimacy is another source of tension. The interests of men and women differ, and personal rivalries are constant.

Added to these general sources of tension are the special problems of Yanan, a forceful, rash, and independent adolescent, newly married. Though her contributions to the group are great, she believes that she is being treated as a child. Though she is pregnant, suffering from morning sickness and related but less definite complaints, she is unaware of her condition. These and other factors contribute to the emotional explosion in the group that sends Yanan away from her husband and his family. She goes with her sister and a pair of young men to join another group.

In the next group, several hundred miles away, she learns that she is pregnant, but by then she has committed a major sin, coitus with a blood relative, one of her traveling companions. Though she does this in revenge against her husband’s family, the punishment falls upon her, for she comes to fear that it is the relative who has impregnated her.

After a summer visiting her kin, she returns to her husband, but the doubts and jealousies about who made her pregnant lead to further tensions that keep her always divided from her group. These tensions and conflicts eventually contribute to her death, for she chooses in winter to give birth away from the lodge, virtually unassisted.

The story of Yanan’s physical life is a Stone Age soap opera, but the passions and conflicts represented illuminate the strategies of survival such small hunting and gathering groups must have developed to deal with the harsh conditions of their lives in a northerly climate. Two main forces are at the center of conflicts within the various groups that form during Yanan’s life. The older people carefully plan marriages of alliance to bring skillful hunters and gatherers, powerful shamans, and strong mothers together. Their goal is the continuing survival and well-being of their offspring. Working against this communal interest are the tangled desires, passions, and jealousies of individuals, especially the young.


(The entire section is 1917 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, November 15, 1986, p. 451.

Chicago Tribune. February 25, 1987, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, December 1, 1986, p. 1757.

Library Journal. CXII, January, 1987, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, March 22, 1987, p. 28.

The New Yorker. LXIII, March 30, 1987, p. 122.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 5, 1986, p. 62.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, February 15, 1987, p. 9.

West Coast Review of Books. XII, March, 1987, p. 26.