It was through a series of random clicks on eBay that I came across Ann Turnbull’s “Maroo of the Winter Caves.” The 136-page book from 1984 is for young readers and offers the story of Maroo, a young woman who lives in a nomadic family-based tribe in Europe’s prehistory.
No, she isn’t a caveman, or even a cavegirl. Not in the classical sense, at least. She and her family aren’t brutes who carry clubs, but thinking people who carefully live their lives by harvesting what the “spirits” bring to them.
I found “Marro” as I was looking for some books on what life was like in prehistory — but not just any book. I wanted to know how people lived before they began to settle down, plant crops and start cities. Naturally, this is a time we modern people know very little about, so I wanted someone who had the imagination to flesh out our understanding of their lives. Archaeologists have a fairly good idea about what things were like back then. They have unearthed the tools those early humans used. They know what animals they hunted. They have some guess of what they wore and where they slept.
But what did they think about? What did they say to one another? What brought them together and tore them apart What were they afraid of and what gave them comfort?
Those are the kinds of questions I had. I wanted to know this as I brainstormed an idea for a comic — a comic about the early humans and the trials they went through — and short of reading “Clan of the Cave Bear,” this book gave me a pretty good idea.
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine this as a 60 or 70 page graphic novel. Most of the dialogue is internal, so an illustrator would have a lot of leeway in his or her depictions of the action surrounding Maroo.
As I mentioned before, I was doing an internet search for something about life in prehistory and all those clicks kept on leading me back to “Maroo of the Winter Caves.” Sure, it was a book for kids, but more than a few online reviewers said, essentially, “Yeah, this is a pretty likely imagining of what life was like back then.”
Reading it, you’re sure to agree. Turnbull’s descriptions of everyday life are probably spot on. Just like the anthroologists say, Maroo and her family migrate with the seasons, following their prey animals to the lush mountains and the sea shore in the spring and summer. Before winter arrives, they retreat back to the plains, where they reside in “the Winter Caves.” Along the way, they hunt animals and forage for goodies that their world provides for them.
It’s after a few of chapters describing her typical life that “Maroo of the Winter Caves” really gets going. After that, Turnbull turns up the intensity on Maroo’s life with one challenge after another.
About a third of the way into the book, obstacle after obstacle gets piled on the family. They suffered losses, but also find new reasons to look forward to the future.
While I mention “intensity” above, don’t mistake “Maroo” for an action-adventure. Instead, this is a look inside the head of an early human who frets about difficult journeys, finding food, hearing strange sounds and animals who might not really be animals.
It’s that insightful writing that makes Turnbull’s narrative interesting. It’s easy for us to imagine the thrill of the hunt, but it’s the not-so-obvious details — like how a fur-lined hood can help with snow blindness — that really makes this a valuable read.
For a young reader, such lessons won’t be so obvious. The book, even at its relative short length, might seem a little dull. There’s no magic (even if there’s the constant threat of spirits assaulting them), there’s no space battles (even though they’re guided by the stars) and no spectacular battles (even though there’s a face-to-face encounter with a cave lion).
Instead, young readers should focus on the details that Turnbull sprinkles through her book and they too might have a greater understanding of the lives of their ancestors.
Teachers and parents interested in having their kids check out “Maroo of the Winter Caves” should check out Judy Graham’s “Maroo” worksheets, which include a chapter-by-chapter vocabulary guide and questions about the story.
Buy Maroo on eBay
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