We have a family legend that my great-grandfather, who was in the Merchant Marines in the early part of the 1900s, was a friend of Jack London’s. The embroidered version is that they were drinking buddies; the verified version is, well, non-existent. But we do have several old pictures of my great-grandfather traveling the world, often with unidentified companions. So who knows–one of them could be Jack London…
Despite the family connection, I’d only read one novel by Jack London (The Sea-Wolf), until recently when I delved into The Call of the Wild. Ol’ Jack may have been great fun to visit a bar with, but I’m sorry to say he’s never going to be a favorite author of mine.
It was an interesting story, and the point of view of the dog brought a lot to it. The picture of life up in the Klondike during the mining time was engaging (not that I’d want to visit, but it was fine to read about) and there were exciting moments. But the nearly unrelenting harshness of it all was too much for me.
The story follows Buck, a family pet who is stolen and sold to become a sled dog. Buck gradually sheds civilization, adjusts to life as a sled dog, and eventually finds his inner wolf, responding to the “call of the wild.”
As Buck passes from one owner to another, meets and (usually) fights with other dogs, and gets pushed through one test of endurance to another, the story is so bleak, and so harsh. For most of the book, rarely is there an act of kindness or a pleasant word. Buck does finally find a loving master who he worships in return. If he hadn’t, I might have completely despaired of the book (or at least London’s opinion of humanity). But, while I don’t want to give away spoilers, let’s just say it doesn’t end up happily with that master either.
I should have known what I was getting into, of course. The Sea-Wolf was not exactly cheerful, and, more significantly, I had read “To Build a Fire,” an incredibly bleak story about a man who managed to get wet in the Arctic and struggles, strains and strives to build a fire so that he won’t freeze to death.
Incidentally, you can also find a story by Mark Twain, I think part of Roughing It, called “Lost in the Snow.” A group of men get lost in the snow and try to build a fire so that they won’t freeze. Because it’s Twain and not London, it’s a very funny story.
I respect London’s knowledge and worldview…but it’s not a world I’d want to visit too often. The Call of the Wild is a good book as a book, but not my style. I’d rather hang out in Twain’s world.