Stories of early humans have always fascinated me. I love history. I’ve also struggled with measuring time in thousands of years, rather than hundreds. How easy understanding the past must be for believers in ‘intelligent design’.
I’ve fantasized about what the lives of our early ancestors might have been like. The junior-school history books with their simple stone-age-man summaries and pictures only tantalized. So often early human’s were summed up by the words, primitive, or caveman.
Jacqui Murray’s Crossroads trilogy, set 850,000 years ago, challenges those concepts. The characters in, The Quest for Home, the second of her three novels, are tribal, but they’re far from primitive. They don’t merely hunt and gather, they must adapt to changes in their circumstances, as they’re displaced from their homeland.
There’s some intriguing background about the research that went into building an authentic world, in the foreword. However, if that kind of thing is not for you, don’t worry. This is primarily, a well-written story driven by a set of strong central characters. The historical notes are supplemental, rather than essential. I only read them afterwards.
It is Jacqui’s choices of a few key details that make the world she’s created feel authentic.
He stepped close enough she could smell his sweat, the pond plants stuck in his hair, and the sourness telling her he hadn’t eaten in a while.
From the beginning, we are reminded of the skills early tribes would have needed. Jacqui’s background notes tell us that:
Homo erectus, the star of Crossroads, is a highly intelligent prehistoric hunter-gatherer who outlasted every other species of man and was the first to spread throughout the Old World of Europe and Asia.
Xhosa, the female leader of ‘our’ tribe, is a new kind of woman. Not only has she trained to become a skilled fighter, she is also quick-witted and resourceful.
When her father died, both Xhosa and Nightshade stood ready to accept the responsibilities of Leader and engaged in a series of contests that tested their cunning, strength, planning, and battle skills. If Nightshade had won, he would now be Leader, she content to serve as his Lead Warrior…
Nightshade is a ferocious fighter. But:
In the fullness of the challenge, Nightshade’s brilliance as a warrior failed to defeat Xhosa’s cunning but if strength were the deciding factor, it would be Nightshade.
So, Nightshade, Xhosa’s childhood friend, becomes her Lead Warrior. As the story opens the group have been washed up on an unknown shore. Many are missing, but the rest gather together. They mourn their losses and prepare to go in search of a homebase, a safe place that only Seeker knows the route to.
It only takes a little extra stress on the group dynamics to raise opposition, overt and covert. The tribe must cross unknown territories, owned by foreign tribes. Luckily, Xhosa has loyal supporters in the group gathering round her. These are the ingredients that give this story a fine pace.
Key characters are a mentor, a girl with the ability to foresee big events, and a boy called Seeker.
What made Seeker especially valuable, and why Xhosa didn’t want to lose him, was that he assured her he could find their new homebase. How he would do that had something to do with the movement of the stars. That made no sense to Xhosa but it had guided Seeker, Zvi, and Spirit for more than two handfuls of Moons.
This, then, is a story of refugees. Xhosa’s people are pushed on not just by Seeker’s ability to read the stars, but also by the inhabitants of the lands they cross. The arguments about boundaries and economics have echoes in our own times.
Although The Quest for Home is book two of a trilogy, you don’t need to have read book one, Survival of the Fittest, to follow and enjoy this stage of the story. You might though, find that the temptation to back-track to part one is pretty strong. That’s where I’m going next, anyway.
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice, a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, In the Footsteps of Giants, Winter 2020, the final chapter in the Crossroads Trilogy.
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