The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

88. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I'll be honest: I wasn't looking forward to this book. Arctic adventures. Dog sleds. The struggle for survival. I had flashbacks of required reading from my Canadian childhood: Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat. This isn't to knock Mowat; it's been over twenty years since I read him, but at 10 years old, I resented having to read about boys and wolves and snow when I could be reading something lovely, like Anne of Green Gables. Not to mention, I'm a decidedly urban person – I've never been camping, never slept in a tent – and so, it's little wonder, I was less than enthusiastic to read a book about a working dog's life in the Yukon.

But, that's the great thing about this list: I discovered that I hated books I thought I would've loved (Sophie's Choice, I'm looking at you), and surprisingly enough, I ended up really enjoying The Call of the Wild.

Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd cross, enjoys a civilized life on Judge Miller's sprawling estate in the sunny Santa Clara Valley. Confined to neither house nor kennel, Buck ruled over all – vineyard, orchard, and house – relishing his status as king of the homestead. That is, until he's cruelly abducted by an insolvent gardener: the gold-hungry hordes streaming north have left a shortage of strong dogs in their wake, and Buck is sold to a trader. 
Thrust into a world he's unprepared for, Buck quickly learns staying alive means keeping on the right side of the “law of the club”. But, Buck is a smart dog and he wisely submits after a vicious beating by a “dog breaker”. Other dogs arrive, and Buck watches as some are successfully broken, while others, too stubborn for survival, are just plain beaten to death. He also watches men, both good and bad, arrive with cash and leave with dogs. Eventually, Buck is sold to Canada Post, to run mail to the burgeoning northern settlements. 
Buck's new masters, Francois and Perrault, are two French-Canadians, who for some distracting reason speak only broken English to each other. Pedantic, maybe, but every time they tied their tongue in knots speaking English (Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt'ing), I wanted to shake London down and ask: why, oh why aren't they speaking French?! The simple fix would have been to make one of them English Canadian. 
While running with the dog team is grueling, Francois and Perrault are fair masters, wise to the way of dogs, and Buck soon emerges a leader. Although hard, Buck learns to like the work. Unfortunately, the mail must be delivered, and the Canadian government has no time to rest its dogs, so after running 5000 kilometers in five months, in Arctic conditions, Buck is sold to a group of incompetent, ill-equipped prospectors. What they lack in common sense, they make up for in cruelty. They overfeed the dogs, only to leave them to starve to death (literally) in the harness when the food runs out. Baggy skin sacs of bone, too weak to move, the dogs are beaten to death when they collapse from exhaustion. It is from these conditions that John Thornton rescues Buck.
As Buck is London's ideal dog, John is London's ideal man, living a life in accord with nature. John knows the language and needs of the animals around him and Buck, for the first time in his life, knows what it is to love a master. John and his companions, Pete and Hans, live in harmony with their environment. They travel light through uncharted territory, eating when they catch something, going hungry when they don't. While they pass many seasons in this uncharted wilderness, Buck dreams the dreams of the canine collective unconscious, huddled around the fire with cavemen, chasing down prey in the woods. Eventually, his instincts lead him to his old brethren, the wolf, and while he disappears from camp for days at a time, as long as John's alive, he can never cut his ties to the humanity: he loves John too much.

Although, at times, London runs the risk of sentimentality, his prose can also be surprisingly beautiful:

And closely akin to the visions of the hairy man was the call still sounding in the depths of the forest. It filled him with great unrest and strange desires. It caused him to feel a vague, sweet gladness, and he was aware of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what. Sometimes, he pursued the call into the forest, looking for it as though it were a tangible thing, barking softly or defiantly, as the mood might dictate. He would thrust his nose into the cool wood moss, or into the black soil where long grasses grew, and snort with joy at the fat earth smells; or he would crouch for hours, as if in concealment behind fungus-covered trunks of fallen trees, wide-eyed and wide-eared to all that moved and sounded about him. It might be, lying thus, that he hoped to surprise this call he could not understand. But he did not know why he did these various things. He was impelled to do them, and he did not reason about them at all.

As I read this wonderful story of Buck's progression through civilized, natural  and spiritual/mythical modes of existence, I realized something mildly disturbing about myself: I am deaf to the call of the wild. I couldn't imagine a life more horrible than John's– hunting for food, braving the elements. And, perhaps more significantly, the “kill or be killed” law of the jungle terrifies me. I'd surely share Curly's fate: the happy dog made friendly overtures to a husky who proceeded to rip off her face. Perhaps, my fear of violence is just an indication that I've been successfully socialized (no psychopathic tendencies, here), but I worry about my (lack of) relationship to the natural world, especially if London's to be believed, and it is to be passed through to reach the spiritual/mythical.
I think a camping trip is in order. I'm off to tell my boyfriend: we need to buy a tent. I'm sure he will (or won't he?) be thrilled.


August 3, 2010 at 7:07 PM Becky (Page Turners) said...

I enjoyed this book a lot as well when I read it earlier this year, nice to be reminded about nature. I also found the description of dog behaviour very authentic

August 4, 2010 at 12:35 AM Devon S. said...

Yeah, I agree. London really knew his dogs.

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