Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Man's best friend

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: 40 - 81 (end)

Wow. Short. This might be the shortest book so far. It's kind of a weird edition, so the pages are really wide, but still.

After Buck becomes team leader, the team completes their run to Dawson, Alsaka, in record time. They're immediately sent out on another, however, which is both virtually unprecedented and very tough on the dogs and the men. By the time they return from the round-trip journey, they've traveled 1800 miles in three weeks, and the dogs are virtually spent. Since the Canadian government has no use for tired, injured dogs, they're sold to a worthless party of two men and a woman (Hal, Charles, and Mercedes) who have no idea what they're doing in Alaska. The men overload the sled and buy dogs with no experience, and Mercedes is an obnoxious citified idiot, so their trip turns into a fiasco. They end up using up the food rations halfway through the journey, which means they run the dogs starving for the rest of it. By the time they reach the frozen river they have to cross in order to finish their trip, half the team is dead and the rest nearly so. Before they cross the river, they meet a man named John Thornton camping at the water's edge. Buck, sensing that the ice on the river is rotten, lies down in the traces and refuses to rise. Hal tries to beat him to death, but John Thornton steps in and stops him. The sled goes on without Buck and crashes through the ice, killing everyone. (We're not sad. Well, a little for the dogs.)

John Thornton becomes Buck's new master, and one to whom he gives his whole self, heart and soul. Buck regains his strength and becomes an amazing specimen, both of dogdom and loyalty to his master. He saves Thornton's life in a bar brawl, wins him 1600 dollars by proving he can pull a sledge with a thousand-pound load, and rescues him from whitewater rapids. When Thornton and several other men venture into the wild to look for gold, Buck enjoys the trip immensely, feeling more and more drawn to the wilderness. He stays with Thornton, but hunts his own game, ranges far and wide, and bonds with a wolf. One day, returning to camp, he finds that Thornton and his friends have been killed by Indians. He attacks and scatters the Indians, killing some of them, and, after mourning Thornton, joins a wolf pack, becomes its leader, and roams free and wild for the rest of his days.

Well, my impressions from the first post are pretty much the same. Thematically, there's the sense that the wilderness calls to something in all of us, man or beast, and has a purifying effect on our needs and emotions. Impulses are stripped down to their raw form; the needs to eat and to fight are foremost at all times. There is also the sense, though, that the humanizing element of love, in this case Buck's for John Thornton, is the only thing that can ever override that urge to satisfy need. Buck stayed with Thornton until Thornton was gone, and even after he died, returned to the spot where he was killed each year to hold vigil. The point is not that the call of the wild is overwhelming and all-controlling, but it is a powerful force that sways us all and can be overcome only by love and loyalty.

Also, the scene where Buck has to pull the thousand-pound sledge is one of the most compelling moments in my experience of literature. I actually said, "Come on, Buck!" out loud. I was alone in the workout room, so it's all good, but really! Way to go, Jack London! (Also, it reminded me of Stone Fox, which, if you haven't read, you should. But be prepared to cry.)

Superb. Any book that makes me cheer out loud for the main character I'll call worthy of the list. In seriousness, though, I'm impressed at the depths that London plumbs in what seems, on the surface, to be a simple adventure story.

1 comment:

  1. Jack London was apparently common reading in Soviet Russia. I (think I) remember my study abroad director explaining that books about animals were generally considered innocuous enough to be allowed.

    (A quick Wikipedia search tells me that London was also pro- union, socialism, and workers' rights, which could be another reason the USSR allowed his works.)

    Parenthetical note aside, it's interesting to me that a government looking to assert control and have its people put collective needs above individual needs would want this book in the standard cannon. I suppose you can see it in the light of loyalty (to the Motherland?) and teamwork, and I guess Buck could also be construed as an exploited worker.

    What stands out to me most strongly, though, is individualism. I see it as a common thread in all of the themes you point out in your third-to-last paragraph, and I see it so strongly that I sort of wonder if the Soviet officials didn't actually read it before allowing it.



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