Having recently spent a few days on the open roads of the Wild West *, I thought I might stay on it for a few days more and recall two classic novels set during the pioneering days in North America. This is an edited version of an article entitled A Dog’s Life which I posted some considerable time ago.
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
Fans of the TV series Star Trek TNG will recall the episode in which Data, transported back to nineteenth century San Francisco, manages to lose his head. In the course of this episode he meets and interacts with two giants of American literature, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and Jack London. The latter appears as a bell boy at a city hotel, his ambition to write and to travel.
The real Jack London probably never met a time travelling alien android, but he managed nevertheless to fill his all too short life with excitement. By the time he joined the gold trail to the Klondike in 1896, he was already a seasoned mariner, had tramped across America and had seen the inside of at least two of its jails.
Later, he became a war correspondent in Japan and sailed in the South Pacific in his own yacht. He published more than thirty works in less than twenty years, earned over a million dollars and spent it almost as quickly as he made it. But it was during his time in the North that he gathered material for his two most famous novels.
Many novelists have featured animals in their fiction; Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge spring to mind of the classics. But few, I think, have captured (outside of the fairy tale) the soul of an animal as well as Jack London. In addition to creating believable animal characters in Buck and White Fang, he is a great storyteller, one with knowledge and experience of the wild country of northern Canada and Alaska. In his prose we can feel the cold, see the dog teams as they pull over the snow, hear the howl of the wolves as they tighten the circle round the human camp fire.
‘His cunning was wolf cunning, and wild cunning; his intelligence, shepherd intelligence and St Bernard intelligence; and all this, plus an experience gained in the fiercest of schools, made him as formidable a creature as any that roamed the wild.’
In The Call of the Wild, Buck is a St Bernard-collie crossbreed who lives in sunny California. He is dog-napped by a treacherous family servant, beaten and transported by train and boat to the Klondike gold trail. There he learns the law of ‘tooth and fang’. By stealth, cunning and not a little violence he rises to be sled team leader with a couple of government mailmen. He changes masters again and eventually becomes the property of a more sympathetic owner called Jake Thornton. However, Buck is drawn more and more by his nature to identify with his wild brothers and sisters rather than with the semi-domesticated dogs of the sled team. Memories of the sunny south gradually fade. When Thornton finally dies, Buck completes his journey to the wild side and joins the wolves.
White Fang depicts the journey in reverse, from ferity to domestication, from the snow and ice of the North to sun-kissed California. White Fang IS a wolf, or at least three quarters wolf who learns from puppyhood to fight, kill and fend for himself. Adopted with his mother by an Indian tribe, he, like Buck, becomes a sled dog and leader of the team.
However, when his native master Grey Beaver succumbs to the pleasures of alcohol, White Fang is sold to Beauty Smith, who makes use of him as a fighting dog. No dog of the north can outfight White Fang until Smith matches him with a bulldog called Cherokee, whose weight and tenacity finally puts White Fang within an inch of death. He is rescued by Weedon Scott, a Californian mining engineer, who against all odds tames him and takes him to his home in the Santa Clara Valley.
‘The master rode alone that day; and in the woods, side by side, White Fang ran with Collie, as his mother and old One Eye had run long years before in the silent Northland.’
The last chapter of White Fang may indeed be redundant as some critics have claimed. It is over-sentimental, and ignoring it does not hurt the story. However, it is Jack London’s story, not ours, and an author may do what he likes in the interests of his art.