Dover Book

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    The Call of the Wild is probably Jack London's best known work, and the one that brought him recognition. It was published in 1903 after London returned to San Francisco in poor health, having spent a year in the Yukon. So the story is based on his own observations and experience. In 1904, London began work on a companion to this book, White Fang. In The Call of the Wild, a tame and pampered St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix named Buck is stolen from his home in Santa Clara Valley by a gardener's assistant named Manuel, who sells him to be shipped to the Yukon as a sled dog. The harshness of life, and the need to fight to survive or die, brings Buck a sense of freedom, as if reverting back to the wild blood of his ancestors. In White Fang, the opposite happens—a wild wolf mix is captured as a sled dog, but manages to escape each cruel owner and finally ends up with a kind man who takes him back to California and to civilization. Both dogs are extraordinary creatures, and both books are written in the first person—or dog, I should say, because it is the dog who tells the story of his life.
    I was bracing myself for the worst as I began reading this story, because White Fang was so violent and abusive to our hero. Buck fares much better in his story, after the initial beating that made him fear the "law of the club." He learns readily, and is very intelligent, and soon does his best to do his job. He is working for two mail carriers for the Canadian Government named François and Perrault, who treat the dogs well. It is the other dogs who become his problem, especially the lead dog, Spitz, a mean and vicious rival. The war between he and Buck begins to cause chaos among the whole team. Eventually war is declared, and Buck kills Spitz in a dispute over a rabbit. The two men are almost relieved because it means a return to order among the dogs. And Buck refuses to work unless he takes Spitz's place as leader. But the mail carriers are eventually given new orders, and must part with the team. François weeps as he says goodbye to Buck.
    The new owner is a "Scotch half-breed," also with the mail service. This time, the dogs are worked to the bone, not out of abusiveness, but need. By the time they arrive in town, they are dead tired and in need of a long rest. But it does not come. They are then sold to Hal, Charles and Mercedes, who know nothing about the wild or about dogs. They overfeed then starve them and beat them when they cannot move. Some of them die along the way. Then they meet John Thornton, who is recovering from frostbite. At that point, Buck is so dead exhausted, he doesn't even feel it when he is clubbed, but John does, and as he watches Hal beat Buck, he suddenly throws him to the ground. "'If you strike that dog again, I'll kill you,'" he at last manages to say in a choking voice." When Hal tells Thornton Buck is his dog, John stands between him and Buck. When Hal pulls his knife, John hits him with an ax handle. Eventually, the trio leave, though warned that the ice is now too thin to support the sled. They ignore the warnings. The remaining team, without Buck, moves on. As Thornton examines Buck's body for broken bones, the team crossing thin ice a quarter mile away breaks through. Hal, Charles, Mercedes and the dogs are lost in the chasm.
    And so, Buck gets his rest as both he and John recuperate. This is the first time in Buck's life that he and a person develop true love and affection. Buck shows his true colors, strength, and loyalty, as he, John and Hans, plus other dogs, take a daring trip to where no man has survived. But despite the bonding between John and Buck, Buck now hears that call of the wild, and begins to explore on his own, sometimes leaving camp for a week or more. He becomes friends with a timber wolf. One day, having roamed far away, Buck senses that something is very wrong. And something is wrong. Something tragic has happened back at camp.
    And that is all I will say about the plot. I first read this book decades ago, when I was very young. I remember little except that I thought it was sad and cruel and upsetting. White Fang is even more so, yet, having read both of these within a short time period now, I liked the latter much better. Not only does it have a happy ending, (although The Call of the Wild ends somewhat happy for the dog but not the people), it is also more well-developed and eventful. Both however, are tough to read if one is disturbed by animal abuse. And both, I believe, are classified as suitable for children, but I'd be careful on that. Still, I do recommend their reading, as they are both master classics.


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