Prehistoric fiction is hard to come by, even in the adult world. If you go looking for it in the YA world, it’s like digging for mammoth bones – not easy to unearth. My induction into the world of Jean M. Auel as a high schooler thanks to my local library’s used book sale has guaranteed that whenever a novel set in prehistoric times pops up, it shoots to the top of my to-read list. Enter Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh.
The marketing material says Eshbaugh’s story is based on Pride and Prejudice, and it is – loosely. Like any good re-telling, the reader doesn’t need to know the source material to enjoy this prehistoric take, though it is fun to puzzle out who is the analog of whom while reading (it’s mostly gender-swapped, for starters, which is a fun change). In the end, though, the correlation is so superficial that you’ll do yourself a disservice by expecting Ivory and Bone to be a true riff of Austen. It’s not.
The precise moment in prehistory is never stated, though we’re given clues: mammoths and ice are both growing scarcer, and the wiser human clans have started supplementing their leaner meat diets with the new plants that are growing in greater abundance. The people use stone tools, spears, and kayaks and wear animal skins. There are no Neanderthals like in Auel’s books. These clues place Ivory and Bone in the Neolithic period at the end of the Stone Age, though I couldn’t ever pinpoint where exactly on Earth the characters were supposed to be. (I’m sure a more attentive reader than me could figure it out!)
Kol, our protagonist and narrator, lives in this long-ago world, where survival is hard and meeting someone outside your own clan is rare. That latter bit is especially important for Kol and his younger siblings, since there are no other young people in their clan and their parents worry they won’t be able to find mates, the only way to ensure the continuation of the clan. Then Mya, her sister, and her brother – the leader of a separate clan – come to speak with leaders of Kol’s clan. Something happened between Mya’s clan and Kol’s clan a couple of years ago, and Kol doesn’t know the details, but it seems Mya’s brother wants to make amends. The circumstances have made Mya very cold to Kol, though Mya’s sister and Kol’s brother hit it off immediately. For a bit, it seems like the two clans might have formed an alliance.
Until Lo, a girl from another clan, arrives. From the start, it’s clear that Lo and Mya have their own history. Kol can’t help but be drawn to Lo, who has a magnetic sort of personality and an undeniable ability to make people follow her lead. Readers who know the basics of Pride and Prejudice will recognize Lo as Mr. Wickham, so it’s not difficult to figure out that Lo is up to no good, but the exact circumstances of her estrangement from Mya and her plans for Kol’s clan remain mysterious up until about 2/3rds of the way through the novel, where it begins to really diverge from its source material.
Part of the reason I love prehistoric novels so much is that we know so little about that time. It gives the writer a lot of free reign, if they have the imagination for it. So while the first part of the book doesn’t have much action, it reads very quickly. Like Pride and Prejudice, much is said with looks and pauses, and much is misinterpreted. During Mya and Kol’s not-quite-courtship, Eshbaugh expands upon Kol’s Stone Age world, giving us those little details that fans of historical fiction crave: what family structures were like, what people ate, how people hunted, what people slept on, what was considered an appropriate gift, and so on. It’s all worked into the story of Kol and Mya getting to know each other – or forming incorrect opinions about what they think the other is like. And when Lo enters the story, the novel changes tone, and we’re given action and not a little amount of blood.
Eshbaugh took a risk with how she chose to tell her story: the majority is second-person POV, with Kol narrating to Mya. So instead of saying “Mya did this,” he says “You did this,” which I found jarring. This technique isn’t quite successful; it took me out of the story a lot and interrupted the smoothness of the narrative when I read “you” instead of “she” or “Mya.” I got accustomed to it a bit by the end of the book, but not entirely. Still, I admire the choice to try something fresh, and it does add another layer to Kol’s and Mya’s relationship that would not be there with a more traditional narrative style.
Eshbaugh’s writing is simple, but in the way poetry can be, revealing more in what it doesn’t say. It also feels true to Kol’s, who is a teenager without the benefit of a written language, since such a thing did not exist yet (at least as far as we’ve been able to discover). The story is completely immersive, taking the reader fully into this world that Eshbaugh has created from a combination of her own extensive research and her imagination. It’s fascinating and unlike almost anything else currently published for teens, both in terms of its story and its narrative techniques. Hand this one to teens looking for something different, whether it’s a fresh take on an old tale, a time period we don’t often read about, or a writing style that tries something new. Highly recommended.