Tuesday, October 4, 2016

61 Books: #48

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–47 are below this post.

48. Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1902) (9/30/16)
A couple of weeks ago I asked the hive mind of Facebook for some short book recommendations, to help me finish this project. I got lots of good ones, including several I really should have read by this time in my life. One of them was The Call of the Wild. So I bought it and devoured it on a plane ride from LA to Boston.

Wow. What a story: positively Dickensian in the range from genteel civilization at the start, through vicious and cruel, ending up with love, liberation, and finding one's true home.

The story, if you haven't read it, involves a dog, Buck (half St. Bernard, half Scotch shepherd—he weighs in at 140 pounds), who is kidnapped from a bucolic ranch in the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1890s and sent to the Klondike to become a sled dog, transporting materials and mail back and forth across many hundreds of miles, from Skagway to Dawson. Along the way he meets handlers of various degrees of humanity (the "man in the red sweater" breaks him—almost—teaching him to obey, if not necessarily to conciliate, and in the process teaching him self-preservation). He also meets many dogs of various personalities and temperaments, many, many of which don't survive the harsh treatment and conditions (and simple stupidity of the humans). In the end, Buck is saved by a man, John Thornton, who is kind, and so finds a reciprocated, true love—though even that ends tragically, when Thornton is killed by Yeehats Indians. Buck takes his revenge, then, merging with a pack of timber wolves, disappears into the wild, a wild that has been calling him more and more strongly.

The writing is lyrical, pastoral, allegorical you might say, with the animals standing in for human traits. It also celebrates the will to survive and make it on one's own, a curiously American desire. Here is a (somewhat random) passage from late in the book when Buck is beginning to answer the call of the wild, shortly after he encounters a timber wolf for the first time:

"He began to sleep out at night, staying away from camp for days at a time; and once he crossed the divide at the head of the creek and went down into the land of timber and streams. There he wandered for a week, seeking vainly for fresh sign of the wild brother, killing his meat as he travelled and travelling with the long, easy lope that seems never to tire. He fished for salmon in a broad stream that emptied somewhere into the sea, and by this stream he killed a large black bear, blinded by the mosquitoes while likewise fishing, and raging through the forest helpless and terrible. Even so, it was a hard fight, and it aroused the last latent remnants of Buck's ferocity. And two days later, when he returned to his kill and found a dozen wolverenes quarrelling over the spoil, he scattered them like chaff; and those that fled left two behind who would quarrel no more.
     "His blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived. Because of all this he became possessed of a great pride in himself, which communicated itself like a contagion to his physical being."
     And so forth, as his physical being is beautifully described, at length.

I was gobsmacked by the story, the beauty of the language, the range of behavior from kindness to cruelty, and the huge heart and soul of Buck himself. So glad I finally read this. And I will always think of Buck as the "Ghost Dog" told of by the Yeehats, who every summer visits a valley that the Yeehats themselves never will again, inhabited as it is by the Evil Spirit. (It is where they killed Thornton and got their just deserts.) There, "he muses for a time, howling once, long and mournfully, ere he departs" and returns to his new family, "running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack."

1 comment:

  1. You've convinced me that I need to re-read this long ago love.