Books: The Call of the Wild

This short novel about the life of a dog has been in continuous publication since 1903.  It functions as an adventure novel, as a travelogue about a little-observed moment in the American past and as a meditation on how personal character is forged by survival against adversity.

Generations of young people, mostly boys, have been raised on the book.  Its writer seems clearly to have been influenced by Rudyard Kipling, and in turn to have shaped and inspired 20th-century American writers from Ernest Hemingway to Jack Kerouac to Hunter Thompson.

Here’s how the story begins:

Four-year-old Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd mix, is separated from his comfortable  life on a California farm and sold by a family servant to settle a gambling debt.

The year is 1897, and large dogs with thick coats are in demand as sled dogs in the Alaskan wild, which has attracted 100,000 ambitious prospectors after a gold strike in the Klondike.  (This setting is factual, by the way.)

Buck is caged and sent by train and without food and water to Seattle.  When released, he attacks the first man in sight and in return is clubbed repeatedly until he learns that the clubbing will stop only when he stops fighting.  From the book:

“That club was a revelation.  It was his introduction to the reign
of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway.
The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect;
and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it
with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.”

Thus begins Buck’s transformation.  He is sent by boat to Skagway and hitched to a sled team carrying mail thousands of miles north into the Yukon in the early days of the gold stampede.

Over time, Buck’s body hardens, grows stronger and adjusts to the snow and ice.  He observes the behavior of other dogs and of humans.  He learns to choose his fights, and he earns the respect of other dogs and the French Canadians who run the team.

At the end of the 2,500-mile-journey, Buck and the other dogs are sold to a trio of lazy and stupid people who all but run them to death.  The story proceeds from there.

Through these experiences, Buck continues to match his actions to his circumstances.  He comes to understand the nature of his ancestors, wolves, and adopts their ways.  The old formalities of civilization are replaced as he hears and answers — yes — the call of the wild.

This is a fine adventure story with a lot of respect for its lead character and insight into the character of individual dogs as well as human characters in the story.  Its themes and lessons obviously are meant for human readers.

The book still reads well, and I recommend it to people who can absorb the violence that shapes Buck into the creature he was meant to be.  My only quibble, and it’s a small one, is that the writer’s transliteration of his French Canadian characters’ dialog is a bit klunky.

The Author

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London was born in 1876 in San Francisco.  He was a rebellious sort and dropped out of school at 14 to become a hobo and small-time thief.  Later, after a year at UC Berkeley (as it is known today), he dropped out again to head north for the Kondike gold rush.

London returned without having staked a claim but with material for “The Call of the Wild” and many short stories.  Perhaps the most famous of these is “To Build a Fire,” a nicely rendered piece that French filmmakers turned into a good animated feature last year on the centenary of London’s death.

As hinted above, London saw himself as a man of action.  He traveled broadly, lectured often (he was an iconoclast, of course) and wrote continually, publishing dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction.  But his health was poor, and he died at 40; it hardly needs saying that he worked full-tilt until the very end.

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