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Before Adam

Jack London

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    There is a reason Jack London was one of the most highly paid authors of his time. He was a great writer! One can always count on going on a wild adventure when reading his books, never quite sure where they will end up. While London is perhaps best known for his fictional novels of the frigid north, like White Fang, he went many other places, too. In this one, we go back to the Pleistocene era and meet his ancestors. According to Wikipedia, the Pleistocene era lasted from 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, which witnessed the development of the first humans. It is through the narrator's dreams, terrifying and frequent, that we learn about the struggles and escapades of Big-Tooth.
    The dreams begin when he is a child, unable to understand what is happening to him. In the dream, he becomes his ancestor and experiences life as an early human. While many people dream of what is familiar to them, he dreamed of what he had never seen or done. As he got older, he theorized that this early ancestor's memories were passed down to him, allowing him to go back in time and experience that life as if it were his own.. Perhaps London didn't believe in reincarnation or past lives, because the narrator doesn't think this being was himself at an earlier time, but a very early version of his family, or the human family. After that is explained, the rest of the story tells of the adventures of Big-Tooth. The dreams are bits and pieces, with very little sense of time, but the narrator has pieced them together chronologically. As he tells this story, he is no longer a child but an older man.
    His dreams begin when Big-Tooth is a young child, clinging to his mother. He experiences life with his father only briefly, when they are being pursued by wild pigs. He and his mother fall through the trees, and he awakens before they hit the ground, so he assumes they did not die. but apparently his father did, because he doesn't appear again.. Big-Tooth's mother takes another mate who abuses him, and he is eventually thrown out by his step-father while his mother is away. He wanders off to their horde, which he refers to as simply the Folk. The Tree People are less advanced than them, but the Fire People are more advanced. Some of the couples have broken away from this community, as his mother and father did, but many others live in this sort of village of caves. Here he meets Lop-Ear and the two become best friends. They find a little cave with a small opening for protection, and go off on lots of adventures. Aside from the wild meat-eating animals, there are two things that truly terrify the Folk. One is the Fire People, and the other is Red-Eye, a huge monster of a being who is part of the community, but is not really evolved to their level. The narrator calls him an atavism. He kills anyone he pleases, including all his wives.
    Though obviously we don't know much about how these people, or beings lived, London's creativity allows us to imagine how it might have been to be a developing species. He addresses the issue of language, of which they had nothing but thirty or forty sounds, and could not express anything that wasn't concrete, such as an abstraction. This is particularly frustrating to them when they all see Red-Eye abusing and killing other Folk, but they cannot communicate the desire to band together and get rid of him. Not only can they not express it, but they can't even form the idea in their minds.

We felt the prod of gregarious instinct, the drawing together as though for united action, the impulse toward cooperation. In dim ways this need for united action was impressed upon us. But there was no way to express it. We did not turn to, all of us, and destroy Red-Eye, because we lacked a vocabulary. We were vaguely thinking thoughts for which there were no thought-symbols. These thought-symbols were yet to be slowly and painfully invented.

    (This is interesting to ponder, but I'm not sure I agree. Animals have no vocabulary, at least of the word-type, but they have developed ways to work together as a pack, swarm, herd, etc. to protect the species. Or perhaps early humans were stupider than animals. Many of us still are.)

    He takes us through discoveries, like the day someone realizes they can carry water in a gourd, so they can have it in their cave overnight.
    At one point Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear go off on an adventure and discover the joy of boating. They learn to paddle with their hands, and they learn that if they hold both of their logs together with their hand and feet, they won't tip over, but they don't figure it out to get some vines and tie the logs together.
    Early intelligence must have been painfully slow to develop.
    While they always avoid the Fire People, because they have bows and arrows that kill, in one scene, they hide and watch them around a fire. The next morning, when the Fire People leave, Lop-Ear, and Big-Tooth begin to play with the embers, and discover if they throw logs on the fire, it gets bigger. It eventually starts the whole forest burning. The two escape on the river in a log boat made by the Fire People.

It was inevitable that we should imitate the Fire-Men in replenishing the fire. We tried it first with small pieces of wood. It was a success. The wood flamed up and crackled, and we danced and gibbered with delight. Then we began to throw on more and more, until we had a mighty fire. We dashed excitedly back and forth, dragging dead limbs and branches from out the forest. The flames soared higher and higher, and the smoke-column out-towered the trees. There was a tremendous snapping and crackling and roaring. It was the most monumental work we had ever effected with our hands, and we were proud of it. We, too, were the Fire-Men, we thought, as we danced there, white gnomes in the conflagration.
    The dried grass and underbrush caught fire, but we did not notice it. Suddenly a great tree on the edge of the open space burst into flames.

    Lop-Ear takes Big-Tooth's half-sister for his mate, but they don't get along and she gets killed anyways. In the end, the Fire People, who had been infringing on their territory for a while, finally run off the whole community. Or kill them, actually, but a few escape, like Big-Tooth and his mate the Swift One. They finally settle in a new area, and have children, who, after numerous generations, eventually become modern people.
    This is a really cool and fun short novel, Written in 1906, it makes us think about things that we normally wouldn't. It is very creative, well-written, and easy to understand so that a child would enjoy it, too. Recommended.


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