A review of Eyo - the People
by Donella Dunlop
reviewed by Ruth Latta
With her latest novel, Eyo - the People, Donella Dunlop has moved from historical novels about the Ottawa Valley to a new genre, "PF", "prehistoric fiction". Eyo is about the first clan to come to North America after the last Ice Age, journeying from Siberia to Alaska on a land bridge across the Bering Strait. Geologists estimate that this land bridge formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation period, which began 75,000 years ago and ended about 14,000 years ago.
Palaeoanthropology is better developed today than ever before, but it is a field with gaps which can be filled only through speculation and stories. Prehistoric fiction is more like science fiction than like historical fiction in that both sci-fi and PF have a scientific basis, yet involve a great deal of speculation and imagination.
"I have condensed a lot of history into the lifetimes of my clan," Dunlop told me, "and I don't imagine that any one clan made such a long journey in one lifetime. However, with a novelist's licence, mine did just that." Dunlop carefully researched the North of 12,000 years ago, including details about inventions and archaeological finds. With each archaeological find or technical development (like Che's invention of the toboggan) the story changes.
In offering a scenario of what earlier human beings were like, Dunlop's novel compares favourably with famous works in the PF genre, such as William Golding (The Inheritors, 1955) and Jean Aeul, (Clan of the Cave Bear, 1980.) Dunlop shows a courageous, inventive and spiritual people. She offers a picture of the daily life, religion, social structure and family life of the early ancestors of native people.
At the beginning of the novel, the central character appears to be Noha, who is "spirit chosen"; that is, he has prophetic dreams like Joseph in the Bible. He dreams that "the Eyo - the people - must follow the Eastern game trails along the Endless Lake. In time, the Eyo shall cross a spirit bridge and come to a land of mountains where no man creature dwells....lakes wider than the eyes can see and grassy plains thick with bison. One day, the Eyo shall find a hidden valley and there they shall dwell forever."
As the Eyo trek across the Bering Strait, a motherless girl, Che, enters the story and eventually becomes co-protagonist. Che wishes that her womanly role involved more equality and more variety; for instance, she would like to go hunting. Mated with Noha, she realizes that she would prefer a man interested in her thoughts, rather than just her work and her sexual services. She is hurt when Noha refuses to discuss his plans with her, telling her that it is not her place to ask questions and that he and his brother scouts will make the decisions.
When Europeans arrived in North America they found that among some native cultures, particularly the clans of the Eastern Woodlands, women enjoyed extensive powers and rights, particularly with regard to the governing of the clan. Some writings about early social structures associate the subjugation of women with a group's change from hunting/gathering to agriculture, which brought with it the concept of private property. The Eyo are hunter-gatherers, a society gradually learning to respect the wisdom and experience of women.
In Noha and Che's culture, men, not women, are considered the spiritual, visionary ones, but Che is a spiritual person who tests the customs of her clan. When a polar bear kills a young child, Che volunteers to go as cook with the hunting party pursuing the bear. Noha is away exploring; his brother is one of the hunters tracking the bear. In capturing the bear, her "brother-in-law" is wounded, and when Che sews up his wounds and nurses him back to health, the attraction which each has felt for the other comes to a peak. Sheltered in a tent framed by a whale skeleton, he tells her, "This time shall be our own." Part of Che's reason for being attracted to him is that he's interested in her thoughts. On returning to the clan encampment, they treat each other as respectful inlaws. Soon after that, when the clan splits into three groups, her brother-in-law is chosen to head another band, and they part, never to see each other again.
Che gradually embraces her role as clan mother and tries to raise her son, Rin, not to "think himself the center of his own world." She has a duty to the help the younger women of the clan find mates, but is in dismay when the Stonefish band camps in the same valley as her clan, the Fox group.
Are the Stonefish people less evolved than the Eyo? (One thinks of The Inheritors, in which Neanderthals meet Homo Sapiens.) When Noha and another hunter first encounter a Stonefish man they think he is a creature, not a man. They describe him as "big, ugly, hairy-footed with rheumy eyes peering from narrowly slit lids" and "robed from head to foot in filthy brown bearskins" even though it is hot. They communicate via drawings and gestures and learn that his people, too, crossed the spirit bridge. Che finds the Stonefish people, a band of about twenty members, to be crude, violent and lascivious, but realizing that the young men and women of her clan need mates, she supports and encourages some pairings.
Another hint of the presence of other early people comes when the Eyo are at the "confluence of the Grandfather of Rivers" at Nahanni. Laf, one of their clansmen, is called out of his tent at night by Nahanni (a spirit) and in the morning his headless body is found with "strange humanoid footprints around him."
Dunlop's cliffhanger chapter endings keep readers looking ahead; for instance, after Che discovers a strange malleable metal (gold) and is allowed to fashion it into a pendant, we are told that it will comfort her on "the terrible journey to come." When introducing a new animal, Dunlop piques our interest by describing it in its own words, or as the Eyo would have seen it, before she tells us what it is. For instance:
"Another nomadic hunter rules the tundra. He is Nanook, Monarch of the Northland. As fearlessly confident as the Eyo, and easily as cunning, he is infinitely more majestic. The only creatures willing to approach him are mammoths, killer whales and walruses... When the Eyo first set foot on the North Shore, mighty Nanook and his brethren ranged over the area with impunity."
Eyo - the People, like Dunlop's earlier novels, is full of lyrical descriptions. Noha, for instance, beholds the "lovely luminous lights of frosty blue and emerald that dance and arch and crisscross the black sea vault." As she evokes the natural world that her characters are experiencing, we feel their awe on sighting a herd of woolly mammoths or bison. Near the end of the novel, Che, who is by then an "old" woman according to the life-span of the times, pauses in a forest and sings a touching lyric: "Remember Me".
Although Che longs to settle in one place, she has no choice but to follow Noha in his quest for his valley of dreams. His plan is to keep his people moving southward "until Keewatin [winter] never again keeps them captive in their huts and they dwell forever in a land of light and warmth." Eventually, when the band of fifty reaches the Bow River Valley, he says that it "may" be the place he has been looking for. Meanwhile, when their "stripling" son Rin goes on a vision quest, a voice tells him that his great-grandsons shall see a beautiful eastern valley where they will eventually live. Thus the story comes around to Dunlop's beloved Ottawa Valley.
Dunlop has written a page-turner, appealing to a wide variety of readers, including action/adventure fans, science buffs interested in "early man", and anyone who likes a strong female character with whom a present-day reader can identify.