Thursday, April 14, 2011

Klondike Canids

The Call of the Wild and White Fangby Jack London, Signet Classic, 2010, 304 pages, ISBN:0451531590

In 1897 when Jack London was 21, gold was discovered in the Klondike.  He left his home in Oakland, California to seek his fortune in the frozen north, but after an unsuccessful winter of mining, he returned home.  Although he did not strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush, that winter did provide him with the fodder for his short stories and novels.  In White Fang London describes the far north:  "The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness....It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild."

The Gold Rush spells trouble for Buck, the lead character of Call of the Wild because men want strong dogs with thick coats to work in the cold.  Buck is a domesticated dog leading a pleasant existence in the Santa Clara Valley (today known as the Silicon Valley) with his owner, Judge Miller, until he is betrayed by one of the gardener's helpers.  After being kidnapped, tormented, starved, and beaten with a club, Buck is taken over 16 hundred miles north to work as a sled dog; his journey is more than physical:  ultimately he returns to his primeval nature.

While Call of the Wild (first published in 1903) deals with a domesticated dog returning to the wild, White Fang (1906), its mirror novel, is about a wolf-dog hybrid that is domesticated.  After being beaten and forced to viciously fight other dogs, White Fang meets a man who treats him with kindness.  My son and I read these adventure stories together several years ago, and, while we found them quite exciting, we also found them quite emotionally stimulating.  All manner of creatures--men, dogs, and wolves--display such visceral violence; the savage, cruel treatment of the dogs by the humans and the vicious killings by the dogs and wolves is at times difficult to read through.  No books give a better sense of how cruel and unforgiving the nature of man, beast, and wilderness can be and demonstrate how close we really are to our primordial selves.

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