The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

The Call of the Wild is a short book about a St. Bernard–Scotch Shepherd mix, raised in a soft life as something of an "estate dog" (in what is today's Silicon Valley). However, not far into the story, Buck is kidnapped & sold on the black market to become a beast of burden during the Gold Rush in the Far North. It's the first book on the list that I have read before! This book was required reading in junior high, & no doubt deserves plenty of credit for my then burgeoning love of the classics and my later fulfilled desire to travel about Alaska. (Can't y'all just see it now? Classic Bitch: The Early Years.) I recall re-reading it sometime in the 1990s as well, not sure why. I may have received some Jack London compendium as a Christmas gift, read all the other stories at that time, & then re-read The Call of the Wild to see how it stood the test of time. And here I am doing it again... with pleasure!

"The months came and went, and back and forth they twisted through the uncharted vastness, where no men were and yet where men had been if the Lost Cabin were true. They went across divides in summer blizzards, shivered under the midnight sun on naked mountains between the timber line and the eternal snows, dropped into summer valleys amid swarming gnats and flies, and in the shadows of glaciers picked strawberries and flowers as ripe and fair as any the Southland could boast. In the fall of the year, they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild fowl had been, but where then there was no life nor sign of life—only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches."

Jack London's nature writing is pure perfection. Is it that the North is so uniquely and trenchantly beautiful that a writer doesn't have to do much but describe it, put words on a page, & it speaks for itself? Or is it something more than that? There is no doubting that London spent time in the Klondike & surrounds. Even though his biography tells us this may not have been a lot of time, it clearly had an effect on London...the right effect.

I try this time around to read The Call of the Wild with a more critical and mature eye. The main thing that jumps out at me right from the beginning—and I don't know how one gets around this when one's protagonist is a dog—is the personification of Buck. I find it cloying at first. Indeed the first line of the book is, "Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing." I can't help but hear echoes of the criticism of London's stories (i.e., they are often characterized as children's stories, or at least appropriate for young readers, with valid reason). I think, he is bordering on anthropomorphism here, to the point that a mature reader may not believe. But by the book's end, in anticipation of this write-up, I begin to take stock of just what these human attributes are that Jack London is ascribing to Buck. I produce a partial list: nostalgia, disdain, egotism, pride, happiness, enlightenment, love. I challenge you to read this book from start to finish and conclude that Jack London was too far off in his personification of Buck. The dog does have these attributes, and by story's end he is one of the most vividly realized and totally believable main characters for whom a writer could ever hope.