Fascination with survival translates to novels
A couple of years ago, novelist Claire Cameron was taking a wintry hike along a rugged stretch of the Niagara Escarpment when she chanced on an ancient limestone cave. That was enough to transport her back 40,000 years to the days when Neanderthals inhabited our planet — and to the book that was taking shape in her mind.
“I sat in there and you know how cold rock gets in the winter.” Sitting in a cosy room in the downtown office of her Toronto publisher, Cameron manages a mock shiver at the memory. “It was miserable,” she says, laughing. But she remembers relishing the experience, because it opened another chink into the distant world of her new novel, The Last Neanderthal.
She explains that research into a mysterious and long-extinct species continues to spark debate.
“One of the biggest controversies has to do with whether Neanderthals lived in caves,” she says. “Yet we are always finding artifacts in caves.”
That Niagara Escarpment experience helped the novelist make up her mind. Cameron imagined herself living in a permanent wilderness situation in the dead of winter — “I’d be out in the snow, but I’d come into the cave if I needed to.” Such images helped “breathe life” into what she was writing.
The Last Neanderthal, published by Doubleday, confirms this effervescent 43-year-old Torontonian as Canada’s foremost practitioner of survival fiction. Her previous novel, The Bear, dealing with two young children fending for themselves in Algonquin Park after a bear attack on their parents, became a national bestseller. The new book is another wilderness adventure, set in a distant time when the last family of Neanderthals is roaming the Earth and when the oldest daughter — known only as Girl — finds herself thrust into a hostile landscape, her only companion a foundling named Runt.
This sort of material comes naturally to Cameron, who started taking risks as a child.
“I was a tree climber,” she remembers. “And I have a very vivid memory of jumping on the couch and trying to see if I could hit the other wall.”
There was also the lure of the outdoors. “The experience of surviving in the wilderness is something that’s fascinated me for a long time,” she says. She cites her time as an Outward Bound instructor, her mountain climbing and her stint as a whitewater-rafting leader in Oregon.
“That sort of risk-taking is very much like writing. You’re pushing yourself.”
But with The Last Neanderthal, she sometimes worried she was pushing herself into an impossible corner. She kept restarting the book — at least 65 times — because she kept thinking it wasn’t right. “Did you mean to make Girl sound like an English-as-asecond-language-student?” her husband asked her after reading one of her drafts. No — she most assuredly did not.
“It was terrifying to write,” she says now. “You get yourself behind the computer and think — I’ll be roundly mocked for trying to write from the perspective of a Neanderthal. That’s scary.”
But she carried on.
“I think what I like about writing is that I can take such huge risks from the safety of my computer. I’m a runner who likes running distances.”
So why Neanderthals? Cameron says they exert a “primal pull” on her — as do bears. She remembers being taught in school that “they were an evolutionary step between the apes and us — hairy, grunting knuckle-draggers who died out because they were inferior ...”
Recent research, however, suggests they were more than that. And Cameron’s novel is driven by one tantalizing question: Did Neanderthals and humans ever make contact, and if so how?
“We don’t know the answer, but a novelist should take on the risk of imagining one.”
Girl’s ordeal intertwines with a modern narrative involving a driven and very pregnant female archaeologist racing against time to excavate recently discovered Neanderthal artifacts before she gives birth. Two parallel situations 40,000 years apart — what’s the link? The novel offers some fascinating answers.
Cameron stresses that the book is a blend of fact and fiction. “I guess my job as a novelist is to take the risk of going beyond what we can’t know.”
Meanwhile, new certainties continue to emerge — including the breakthrough mapping of the Neanderthal gene in 2010.
“I was certainly taught in school that we evolved from Neanderthals, but now the common view is that we lived alongside them and could interbreed with them,” Cameron says.
“We’ve also found that Neanderthals had the gene that enables speech in humans — so taken together, that suggests Neanderthals had the capacity to speak. But that’s something we can’t know for certain.
“We can’t hear them from 40,000 years ago, so that’s where I stepped in with fiction.”
Even so, Cameron had to find a voice for Girl that satisfied her — and that was tough.
“I had to shake off the old ideas. We think of them as grunting, but most experts now think they had a short larynx and a highpitched voice they really had to force out.”
So what does she hope readers take away from The Last Neanderthal?
“We have this story of ourselves going from primitive to perfect, and it’s a comforting story because it allows us to see that we’ve evolved to this position of being masters of the Earth with Neanderthals dying off because they were inferior.
“But now science is showing us that there are more components to the story than we realize.”