Nov 2, 2008

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

I have to think this is the most famous of Jack London's stories. I can't count how many times I've read it since high school. It's the story of a mixed breed dog named Buck, a shepherd-Saint Bernard cross, who was stolen from his California home and sold in Alaska during the Gold Rush, for use as a sled dog. Buck quickly learns to master his new hostile environment, learning the "law of club and fang" and fighting others dogs in the team for supremacy. He passes through the hands of several different owners, some reasonable and kind, others outright ignorant and cruel. (In this the story reminded me of Black Beauty). Eventually Buck and his team end up with irresponsible owners who nearly starve them to death, and he's rescued just in time by John Thornton. There follows a period where Buck shows his devotion to Thornton by performing heroics and awesome feats of obedience, before harking to the irresistible call of the wolves in the forest and running off to live with them.

I just had to open this book again after recently reading Coppingers' criticism in Dogs: A New Understanding:

"I can't think of a single trait possessed by wolves that I'd want on a dog team.... Jack London's fictitious lead dog, Buck, dreamed about being a real wolf, and in the end left the world of man and reverted to the wild to lead a wolf pack. To me, this kind of imagery is not just fiction, but awful fiction. It seems to me there should be a touch of reality to a romance. London's story does no favors for dogs, or for wolves."

I had in mind to read the book more critically this time, looking for how it was unrealistic, according to what I read in Coppingers' work about sled dogs. At first I started jotting down a list, which things felt true: the team's eagerness to run, their tendency to fight with each other, an individual dog's distress at being left behind when the team ran. But the list of unrealistic depictions was far greater. I'll point out a few: dogs would not work after being injured. I don't know how many times in this book I read about a dog being "slashed to the bone" in a dog fight, then pulling the sled the next day! And if the dogs fought so regularly, why wouldn't the drivers tie them up out of each others' reach? The idea that Buck could learn new predatory behaviors solely by instinctual memory seems pretty ludicrous. He went from being a pampered pet in California, to working on a sled team- okay, feasible. He toughened up to the work. Also believable. Then his senses grew sharper, he ran off to hunt and kill prey by himself, and even brought down a moose! Seeking out the largest one he could find out of pride, no less. I find it hard to believe a lone dog could ever kill a bull moose. Aside from this fabulous feat he also, on a bet Thornton placed, broke out of the ice and pulled for a hundred yards a sled loaded with a thousand pounds, all by himself. I just don't think a hundred-fifty pound dog could do that. (Please correct me if I'm wrong!) And then there's the whole concept of Buck having dreams about his ancestors and "remembering" wolfish instincts. It struck me just as ludicorous as what I read simlilar in Nop's Trials.

The strange thing is, even though I discovered that this book is full of overblown romanticism about Nature (harsh and brutal), I still find it a great story. After a while I put aside my notes and just enjoyed it again. I think if I hadn't been enthralled by The Call of the Wild when younger, I would have found some of its portrayals laughable, and others very disturbing (especially the mistreatment of animals). So I'm glad I read this first of all in youthful ignorance, because that has allowed me to continue to appreciate Jack London's wonderful storytelling, even if I can see some flaws now.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 88 pages, 1903

Read more reviews at:
An Adventure in Reading
A Work in Progress
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

3 comments:

Chain Reader said...

Youthful ignorance is a wonderful thing--I still have it! I have started this book a few times but never finished. I'm not sure why. It is one I'd like to get to someday.

verbivore said...

I have never read Call of the Wild and didn't know it was written from the perspective of a dog. I'm not sure I would enjoy it as an adult, but I suspect you're right, for a young person it must be a wonderful experience.

Trish said...

I didn't realize this was from a dog's perspective either. It has been years and years since I've read anything by London, but I've been wanting to pick something of his up for a while. I suspect I'll probably go with White Fang, though?