Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

It occurred to me as I was trying to compose this review that in the past few years I have read three books with the word "Wild" in the title.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and now The Call of the Wild by Jack London published 1903.  I didn't plan on it. I chose The Call of the Wild for example because it fits this year's Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about an animal.  And yet something drew me to all three of these adventure books in which man, woman and dog go on their separate and dangerous journeys into the harsh wilderness.  

For Chris McCandless of Into the Wild it ends in tragedy.  But for Cheryl Strayed of Wild and Buck the Saint Bernard in The Call of the Wild it is a life changing experience.  Cheryl Strayed finds in herself the strength she went searching for and Buck whose journey into the Yukon is not voluntary nevertheless locates a part of himself he didn't know was in him, his ancient wolf nature.  As to whether the reader will be happy about how Buck changes that's another story.  I myself was not happy but that is not a criticism of the novel which is an amazing piece of literature, well deserving its classic status. It is violent though, "beautiful and savage" as one Amazon reviewer described the book.

And so, The Call of the Wild begins in the late 1890's on a ranch in Santa Clara, California owned by a wealthy judge and his family.  All kinds of animals reside on Judge Miller's property but Buck the family's four year old Saint Bernard/Scottish Shepard is special: 

"Buck was neither house-dog or kennel-dog.  The whole realm was his.  He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge's sons; he escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge's daughters, on long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge's feet before the roaring library fire ... Among the terriers he stalked imperious and Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignored for he was king --- king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included".

But despite Buck's pampered life danger is heading his way. Gold has been found in the Yukon, a northwest Canadian territory bordering Alaska.  Tens of thousands of prospectors from around the world are heading there to seek their fortune and big strong dogs are in high demand to pull the sleds and transport the goods.  At 140 pounds Buck is just the sort of dog they are looking for and one night he is lured outside, kidnapped by strangers, beaten, forced into a cage and put on a train that will eventually make its way to the Yukon. 

Buck's mistreatment at the hands of cruel masters both on his journey to the Yukon and once he arrives is hard to read.  Once he arrives in the Yukon he becomes part of a team of sled dogs and these dogs are worked to the bone, forced to haul mail and goods weighing hundreds of pounds for hours and hours with very little rest and often not enough food.  It's a violent world that Jack London conveys in The Call of the Wild. And many of the dogs are too soft and gentle and they don't make it. But Buck from the start is a leader who as the book tells us possesses cunning and imagination. He decides he wants to be the lead dog on the team pulling the sled and viciously kills Spitz his rival who has been the lead dog up to then.  And as we go deeper into the novel ts clear that despite the hardships and tough terrain Buck has taken to his new life:

"This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time". 

When the novel ends, Buck is not the same dog we were introduced to at the beginning of the story.  He is a wolf-like creature.  Any resemblance to the domesticated dog who lived contentedly with Judge Miller's family is gone although one could make the case that even back at the ranch in California there was an arrogance about Buck, an aloofness and cunning intelligence that the wild simply brought to the surface.  It's hard to know which version of Buck Jack London approved of or maybe he was just telling the story as accurately as he could of how a dog like Buck would transform himself given the circumstances he was faced with.  Either way, Jack London did a magnificent job with this novel and though no one can really know what dogs are thinking, London's creation of Buck rings quite true.