Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London


The adventures of Buck, a ginormous St. Bernard-Scotch Shepherd cross who is kidnapped (dognapped?) from his posh California home during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s.  Buck is unceremoniously shipped up to the Yukon, where he is forced to work as a sled dog for the Canadian mail.  Despite some initial difficulties, Buck adjusts quickly to his new life, and it's not long before he is top dog (so to speak).  Buck is passed around to various owners during his time as a sled dog--some foolish, some wise, some cruel, some just.  As time passes, he feels himself increasing torn between loyalty to the world of men, where he's always lived, and the inescapable allure of . . . the call of the wild.

I can't seem to figure out if this is the first book written from a dog's perspective, but if it's not, it has to be one of the first.  Jim Kjelgaard (of Big Red fame) didn't start writing until the 1940s, Lady and the Tramp wasn't released until 1955, and lesser-known dog enthusiast (and breeder of rough collies) Albert Payson Terhune didn't publish Lad: A Dog until 1919.  Even London's own White Fang wasn't published until three years after this novella.  I don't know that he invented the genre, but I suspect this book and its widespread popularity helped lay the foundation for a genre that would be beloved by animal lovers everywhere (and myself in particular).  For that reason alone this book is significant, though of course that's not the only basis for its inclusion in the category of American classics.

Unlike many other 'dog's eye view' books, this story is not focused primarily on Buck's relationship with humans, but on his own inner life, such as it is. People are there, sure, and he learns things from them, but he's not just a witness to the action--he's the star of the show. He's not there to fawn over people; his world does not revolve around his masters. In this way, he's almost more cat than dog, at least according to the stereotype.

Then, too, the story's darker than many animal stories tend to be. Death here is not just a poignant ending to a long and wonderful life lived in the bosom of a loving human family. Death is a harsh reality. Buck's worldview--and perhaps London's--is individualistic and pragmatic to the extreme. Few actions are truly immoral or reprehensible if they aid the actor in his battle to survive. This is, quite literally, a book about survival of the fittest, and in order to survive Buck must not only become the fittest but must be willing to take advantage of those less fit. Not that he's a bully, mind you. He seems to be largely fair-minded and far from vicious. But neither is he necessarily merciful.

The one exception to this utilitarian and self-focused mindset is Buck's relationship with John Thorton, the last man he stays with before [SPOILER] yielding to the call of the wild. This is the closest Buck comes to any sort of traditional dog-human relationship, and it's a doozy, full of love and adoration and self-sacrifice and all the other noble emotions we tell ourselves characterize our relationships with our own pets--in our daydreams, if not in reality. As a dog lover, this was, I admit, my favorite part of the story, even if it didn't last.

Ultimately, this is decent adventure/survival story, likely to appeal to both boys and girls--assuming they're ready for the thematic maturity of the book, of course (Amazon recommends the book to readers ages 12 and up). I tend to think kids can handle this sort of matter-of-fact darkness without missing a beat (see, e.g. Grimm's Fairy Tales), but YMMV.  Oh, and fair warning: While Buck makes it through the novel, a lot of other dogs . . . don't. The less-than-sentimental tone of the book plus the tertiary nature of the canine characters affected make these deaths much easier on the reader than might otherwise be the case (cough*WhereTheRedFernGrows*cough*OldYeller*cough*Sounder*cough), but still: dogs do die. You have a right to know.

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