An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush
The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.
By Janice Harayda
Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?
London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?
These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.
As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.
Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”
Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”
Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.