The Animal Wife

ISBN-13: 978-0395524534
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication date: 9/27/1990
Pages: 289 pages
Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 0.9 inches

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The Animal Wife

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s greatest talent is to identify with, to become, an animal, as a great hunter does; and animals provide Kori’s people with nearly all their religious and spiritual symbols, nearly all their tools and weapons, nearly everything, except desire. Kori is full of desire and aspiration—the aspiration to be as great a hunter as his father, Swift; the desire for a woman of his own.Few readers of this book will ever forget the scene in which Kori, hunting in strange country for the site of a mysterious campfire, finds, swimming in a pond, what he imagines to be an animal but which turns out to be a naked woman; acting on instinct only, he instantly abducts her and makes her his wife.

The Animal Wife , which is set in Siberia 20,000 years ago, is a companion novel to Thomas’s earlier Reindeer Moon (LJ 1/87). It depicts the life of the hunter-gatherer tribes of those plains through the story of Kori, a young male of the tribe. While out hunting, Kori captures a woman from another tribe whom he names Muskrat. Their evolving relationship and the interactions among the family tribe members as they move from their summer grounds to their winter grounds in the constant search for food form the heart of the novel. Thomas is an anthropologist who has used her experiences with the Kalahari bushmen as background. However, this works best as a work of fiction and not an anthropological study; there is much interest and humor in the male-female conflicts. This will be heavily promoted and, while not as steamy, is likely to appeal to Clan of the Cave Bear fans. —The Library Journal

Light years separate Thomas’s intelligent, literate fiction from most other novels set in prehistoric times. Exuding authenticity and distinguished by resonant language, this novel, a companion to Reindeer Moon , is likewise set in the savannastet of the Siberian Paleolithic. The narrator, Kori, and his hunter-gatherer people are portrayed as heroic but also fallible, sometimes prey to bad judgment and overwhelming passions. Kori is beset by guilt when he realizes that his shaman father’s new wife is pregnant with Kori’s child, conceived in secret before his father chose to marry her. Later, seized with lust at the sight of a woman swimming in a pond, he impulsively captures her, putting his group in peril of her people’s revenge. The woman, whom he names Muskrat, comes from a tribe whose customs, worship, sexual practices and hunting techniques are different from Kori’s. These alien beliefs and mutually incomprehensible languages are as crippling to their relationship as a deep ethnic division is in any time; intolerance and distrust breed bitterness and tragedy. Thomas has a magical feel for the patterns of the natural world integral to the hunter-gather culture. While this novel does not have the heart-tugging poignance of the previous story, it is psychologically acute and soaringly imaginative. Paperback sale to Pocket.–Publishers Weekly


MY FATHER had four wives, but still he looked at women. He said they looked best in the fall, after eating well all summer. By fall their ribs no longer showed, their skins were smooth, their hair was glossy, and their arms and legs were round. And in the fall, before the river froze, they bathed in groups in the shallow water by day, when people could see them. “Do as I did,” Father once told me. “Marry as many as you can.”  At the time, his advice surprised me. I thought of all the mammoth ivory and other presents he had given to his four groups of in-laws, and of the trouble the four women had caused him.

Father was a shaman and a headman. He owned the hunting on both sides of the Hair River from the southeast where it leaves the Black River all the way northwest to the range of hills called the Breasts of Ohun, where on Narrow Lake he had his winter lodge. Father was a strong and famous hunter who killed more meat than his people could use. He was a feeder of foxes!

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So he was important, which made his wives important. With the meat and gifts he gave their kin, they should have been satisfied. But they were never satisfied. His first wife died, and my mother, his second wife, divorced him. His third wife was quarrelsome, and his fourth wife deceived and disappointed him. He had no peace because of women, so when I heard his advice about marrying many of them I thought he was teasing.

Not so. He meant it. Father didn’t seem to mind the troubles. He liked women, and he knew I would too. When I was very young, I lived as all children do, always with women. Whatever my mother did, I also did. I almost thought I was a woman. I knew my body was different, but that didn’t worry me. One of the earliest things I remember is a summer evening by the Fire River, where the women were bathing. The sun, round and red, was lowering itself into the grass on the horizon, and the frogs in the river had begun their pulsing song. They reminded my mother to sing too, and she got me to join her. The song was low and rhythmic, like the frogs’. We sang:

Tell my mother he is coming,

My husband, the heron, is coming.

Tell my sister he is coming,

My husband, the heron, is coming.

Tell my children he is coming,

My husband, the heron, is coming

On and  on, for all the kinfolk. The name of the song is “The Frog Woman’s Song.” The other women joined and we all sang, my mother’s voice high above the rest. Sitting on the bank in a frog’s position, I sang gladly, with all my heart, not noticing that the song was a warning.

Ah, my mother. Her name was Aal, and in those days she was a big, strong woman. I remember sitting between her knees at night beside the women’s fire, leaning against her body, listening to her voice through her chest. In the company of other women she spoke very freely about my father and even about my uncle, her brother. Often what she said made the other women laugh at the men. As I grew older, too old to nurse or to lean against her, I realized that the songs she sang and the things she said about my father and uncle showed bitter feelings, and I saw that she held much against these men.