A review of Bob Hayes’ second prehistoric fiction novel about Zhoh
“They were down to just four humans and a wolf puppy named Zhoh.”
A funny thing happened in the two years between the ending of Book 1 of the Bob Hayes’ Zhoh trilogy, The Clan of the Wolf, and the beginning of Book 2, The Spirit of the Wolf.
Zhoh # 1 concluded with the deranged giant arch villain, One-Eye, fighting for his life against a starving giant bear, four times the size of a modern grizzly, and about to meet his maker any moment, a conclusion I spent the entire novel anticipating.
Alas, #2 opened with One-Eye seriously mauled but somehow alive, saving himself by digging a snow cave and passing out before awakening to find the bear dead from his spear. I groaned because it meant I had to put up with that despicable murdering psycho for another 318 pages, assuming he doesn’t come back from the near-dead again in Part 3, sometime in 2020 or so. One-Eye recovered, of course, though not quickly, and became the victim of a gang of “Skin Stealers” nastier than even himself, which made me think of Cavemen Bandidos robbing and raping the poor homesteaders trying to conquer and settle the Beringian steppes, 14,000 years ago, as if they didn’t have enough to deal with already like lions, bears, wolves, mammoths, bison, stallions and gyrfalcons, which was how One-Eye lost his eye and tongue as a young boy.
The Stealers captured him and kept him chained up like a slave for their own amusement, until his rage finally got a chance to erupt into revenge.
Meanwhile, the sympathetic protagonists, the Wolf Band, were getting whittled away by natural and unnatural misfortunes until they were down to just four humans: Assan, Naali, Kazan, So’tsal and a wolf puppy named Zhoh that they rescued from a den, the only survivor of another bear attack.
In his first two literary triumphs—Wolves of the Yukon, in 2010; and Zhoh #1, in 2016—Hayes set the table for this effort, and the last in a couple of years to complete the Zhoh trilogy, which give fictional human drama and perspective to the 1977 archeological discoveries in the Bluefish (Greyling) Caves of northern Yukon, 54 kilometres south of Old Crow on a small tributary of the Porcupine River.
Old Crow Elders and historians had known about signs of ancient human life in their area since antiquity, but Jacques Cinq-Mar’s “discovery” of the caves, in 1977, hit Canada and the Yukon like a thunderbolt, when the carbon-dating results were published, because he had found the oldest artifacts in Canadian history at the time and stories began circulating, almost immediately, calling the Yukon the “Cradle of North American civilization” mistakenly theorizing all of ancient North America migrated southward from our Beringia, an optimistic theory that has since been disproved. But there is no dispute about the Bluefish Caves being ice-free, 14,000 years ago, and modern visitors travelling the Dempster Highway just slightly to the east, as the raven flies, can see the exact spot where the mighty glaciers of the last Ice Age stopped and receded—from a high viewing platform just north of the Ogilvie River. This is the stage for Spirit of the Wolf.Between then and now, of course, the greatest mammalian extinction In history transpired as the glaciers melted, the oceans rose again and the Beringia doorway to North America closed forever … or at least until the next Ice Age.
Hayes, 65, is a scientist by trade, a bluegrass mandolin player by recreation and a retired wildlife biologist by profession who spent 18 years as the territory’s wolf specialist. He was motivated to write “caveman fiction” by his deep knowledge of wolves and his admiration of the first humans who shared Beringia with them in his considerable imagination.
The book is divided into four parts, by seasons, starting with Spring (Sreendyit), then Break-up (Daii), Summer (Shin) and ending with Autumn (Khaiints’an’), thus presenting readers with a year-long snapshot of northern life in prehistoric Yukon. He writes using 85 vignettes, rather than chapters, as he follows the parallel survival stories of the Bear and Wolf bands, the Skin Stealers, Zhoh’s wolf family, One-Eye and the rest of the mammals, both human and animal, who wandered the frozen tundra at the same time competing for food. They seemed to take turns developing the plotline through the seasons, all of which were heading to a dramatic conclusion at the “Hill of Three Caves” (Bluefish), for a wild surprise ending, which we won’t reveal in a pre-publication review. Previews are supposed to pique your interest and entice you to buy the book, not tell you how it ends, but there is no harm in quoting the final sentence if it is a good one:“In the distance, snow-covered peaks rose through the whiteness. Far off, somewhere below in the fog, a wolf howled.
”Isn’t that a beauty? How else would a free-flowing Hayes novel conclude, if not with a howling wolf. And we will wrap up this brief glimpse into part two, with the author’s Epilogue explaining his objective while tackling this difficult and delightful Yukon trilogy:
“In 1915, John R. Lindmark, a bookseller in New York, wrote to Jack London asking for a letter explaining ‘the motive of your muse.’ London wrote back, describing his approach to writing. ‘I’m a realist who believes in reality and who, therefore, in all I write strive to be real, to keep both my own feet and the feet of my readers on the ground so that no matter how high we dream our dreams will be based on reality.’
“A hundred years on, I believe London’s idea of what makes good fiction still rings true. Writing prehistoric fiction is especially daunting because there are no records of the landscape, human culture, language and other essential elements that contemporary storytelling can rely upon. I have tried to bring a sense of prehistoric reality to the book that holds a reader’s interest and suspends disbelief until the very last page is turned.”
Mission accomplished with #2. Bring on #3 (with or without ol’ One-Eye).