Continuing on with my little series of book overviews and reviews, I chose The Call of the Wild by Jack London as the next subject of my attention. There was not much deliberation behind such a choice, mind you. I had never heard of Jack London before nor had come across any of his literary pieces. I was simply on Project Gutenberg one day, browsing the list of the most popular books available there, and somewhere in the middle of the list I saw The Call of the Wild and thought the title sounded rather exciting (what’s that saying about not judging a book by its cover, or in this case, by its title?). Curiosity got the better of me, so I searched for something about the book on Google. I liked the results I saw, and promptly decided to read the book (instead of The Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving that I had had queued up on my reading list).
I downloaded my copy of The Call of the Wild in EPUB format from Project Gutenberg, as I’ve done with the three other books I’ve written an overview and review of, and with the many more books I have read long before I decided to write book overviews and reviews and share it on my blog. By the way, if you don’t know, Project Gutenberg is a massive online library of thousands of mostly older books and literary works (for which U.S. copyright has expired), all eased into digital and electronic formats, and all made available for free for anyone to access, download, and read.
And as with all the three book overviews and reviews that preceded this, this particular overview and review contains exactly just those: an overview and a review. The overview is simply a brief (hopefully) summary of the book, and the review is no more than an account of my experience with the book. Please keep in mind that everything I’ve written below does not in any way constitute a literary critique, nor was it intended to be. I’m neither a literary critic nor do I fancy myself to be one. My only goal in doing this is to grow my passion for books and for reading, and to share my experience with people who have the same such passion.
The Call of the Wild is a short adventure novel written by Jack London and published in 1903. It is set in the Arctic Northland – in Yukon, Canada and in Alaska – during the Klondike Gold Rush in the last decade of the 19th century.
The novel features a domesticated dog named Buck, who was abducted from his home in California and brought into the wild North, where he was sold into service as a sled dog. In the cold and cruel environment he was thrust in, under the harsh treatment he suffered from humans and dogs alike and the terrible burden of the toil itself, Buck is swiftly forced to shed the trappings of domestication, awakening – and embracing – his primordial, feral nature in order to survive. Through brute strength and cold cunning, Buck gains mastery over the other dogs and over himself, until he eventually heeds the call of the wild and fights his way to become the fearsome and legendary leader of a timber wolf pack.
The Call of the Wild begins with an account of Buck, an enormous and powerful crossbreed of a Saint Bernard and Scotch shepherd (Scotch Collie), and his tamed and pampered life in the keeping of Judge Miller and his family, who reside on a ranch somewhere in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley of California.
But his life of contentment is violently upended when he is abducted from his home by Manuel, one of the helpers of Judge Miller’s gardener, and sold to a stranger to pay for the helper’s gambling debts. Caged and ill-treated, Buck is loaded on a train to San Francisco; and from there shipped north to Seattle, where his proud bearing and fierce spirit is tested by ‘the man in the red sweater’, who proceeds to ‘break’ the dog with the help of a club. Subject to a most brutal bludgeoning, Buck speedily learns that he is no match for the man; that his size, strength, and animal instincts were utterly useless before the club; and that to continue struggling will only result in sure death. And as soon as he realizes all these, he learns to acquiesce and to obey – beaten, but not broken.
In Seattle, Buck is sold as a sled dog in the service of two French-Canadians: Perrault, a dispatcher of the Canadian Government, and François, a musher or a dogsled driver. He is then taken to Alaska by ship, where, upon landing, he is thrust into a cold, strange, savage, and unforgiving world, into the grim company of veteran sled dogs. Under the stern but fair hand of François, whose whip and club, Buck learned, cracked to mete out punishment only to those deserving and no more; and under the strict instruction of his more experienced dog peers, Buck promptly learns – and assumes – the duties of a sled dog, and grasps the ability and the attitude necessary to survive in the untamed wastes of the frozen Arctic North.
In the service of Perrault and François, Buck swiftly and skilfully adjusts to the harsh realities of his new life. He grows in strength, speed, endurance, and in cunning. The trammels of domestication all but broken, Buck awakens the savage beast within him, the very same primeval spirit that ran true within the forefathers of dogs that roamed wild and free when the world was young. He grows ever more emboldened and ambitious, soon desiring nothing less than the leadership of the dog team, and begins to challenge the authority of Spitz, the white husky that led the pack. The long and bitter contest for mastery culminates when Buck manages to kill Spitz in a ruthless battle to the death, and thereafter he takes up the mantle as the leader of the pack.
But the terrible rigors of a life of service before the sled, and the exacting nature of life in the cruel North in general, soon begin to tell, and Buck and his pack slowly but surely succumbs to extreme exhaustion and depression. When Perrault and Francois complete their dispatches from Skaguay (modern-day Skagway) in Alaska to Dawson (modern-day Dawson City) in the Klondike region in Yukon, Canada, and back again – all in record time – Buck and his pack are sold to a half-Scottish mailmaster as part of a mail train with a dozen other dog teams bound back to Dawson. But the long haul to Dawson and then back again to Skaguay utterly saps them of strength, resolve, and will to live. Though treated well and fairly by the mailmaster and his drivers, Buck and his pack – or whatever is left of it – simply become too exhausted by the toil and trail.
In Skaguay, Buck and the remainder of his pack are sold again, this time as part of the dog team in the service of three stampeders (those following a stampede for a gold rush): Mercedes, her husband Charles, and her brother Hal. But the trio’s complete inexperience with life in the Northland and their sheer lack of skill and knowledge in managing dogs or dogsleds prove disastrous, so that their team of fourteen dogs, owing to cruel treatment and starvation, are reduced to five by the time they reach the frozen White River.
Before crossing the White River, the trio stops by John Thornton’s camp along the bank. Thornton, an experienced outdoorsman, warns them against crossing the river, for though it was still frozen over, it was already thawing fast. The trio ignores the advice and seeks to press on. But when they endeavor to rouse the near-dead dogs where they had fallen in exhaustion, Buck would not move an inch from where he lay, for so completely broken in body and spirit was he that he was resolved never to move again.
An enraged Hal mercilessly thrashes Buck, but to no effect: Buck has become too benumbed to feel pain or to even care. Moved by love and pity for the dying dog, Thornton comes to Buck’s rescue, overpowering and humiliating Hal and cutting the dog free. The trio leaves posthaste and attempts to cross the frozen White River. But as John cautioned, the ice gives way, and the trio, the dogsled, and their four remaining dogs are swallowed by the river.
John Thornton nurses Buck back to health, and under his loving ministration, and in the friendly company of Skeet and Nig, Thornton’s two other dogs, Buck regains his former size and strength, and even surpasses them, growing larger, stronger, and more magnificent to look upon. Buck repays Thornton’s kindness by saving the man’s life twice: once from an assailant and another from drowning in a river. He also won Thornton $1,600 from a wager that involved Buck hauling a thousand-pound sled.
Buck had friendship for Judge Miller. For Perrault, Francois, and the half-Scottish mailmaster, he had respect. But for Thornton, Buck had love. But as Buck’s love for Thornton grows by the day, so too does his feral nature. His savage spirit increasingly longs for freedom and the wilderness.
Eventually, Thornton, along with his companions Pete and Hans, and his dogs Buck, Skeet, and Nig set out East to find the fabled gold mine known only as the Lost Cabin. A months-long trek in forested and mountainous country leads them not to the cabin, but to a river-valley where the ‘gold showed like yellow butter across the bottom of the washing pan’. Here they camped, and here they worked, amassing a great fortune in gold dust and gold nuggets.
But Buck, during all this time, was heeding more and more the call of the wild. It was now his custom to range away from the camp and roam the surrounding forest. During one of his expeditions, he encounters a timber wolf, which he thinks of as his Wild Brother, and which he befriends. He would have followed his Wild Brother deeper into the wilderness, but his love for Thorton held him back. Indeed, Buck strayed farther and farther from the camp, and stayed away longer and longer, but it was solely his love for his master that kept him coming back.
However, there was a time when Buck strayed too far and stayed away too long, and upon his return to the camp, he finds that Thornton, Pete, and Hans, as well as Skeet and Nig, have all been slain by the Native American Yeehats. He finds the tribesmen still cavorting in the camp, celebrating their ‘victory’, and straightaway he falls upon them mercilessly, killing a few and sending the rest to flight, though he hounds them even as they rout.
It was only his love for Thornton that kept Buck coming back, but now that Thornton is dead, Buck is completely loosed from humans, from the fetters of civilization. He is free forever to heed the call of the wild, to venture wherever he may, to prowl wherever he pleased. So into the wilderness he goes, and upon encountering a timber wolf pack, he fights them all until he gains admission into their ranks. He later finds out that his Wild Brother is one of the wolves in the pack.
Now forever wild and free, Buck rules the forest as the head of the wolf pack, though he is larger and more terrible than any wolf. Never forgetting his master’s death, he continues to exact retribution upon the Yeehats, so that they learn to fear him, naming him as the Ghost Dog. Buck’s terror grows to legendary fame in all of the Northland, and in later days, he is often depicted roaming at the fore of the timber wolf pack, singing ‘a song of the younger world which is the song of the pack’.
The Call of the Wild is a very short book, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in visceral excitement. From start to finish, the novel is a gripping, thrilling experience, packed throughout with action and vivid descriptions of physical violence, pain, and suffering. In fact, I was so moved by Buck’s tale that I myself almost considered stripping all my clothes off, bolting to a nearby forest, howling at the moon, and challenging an alpha wolf in a battle to the death for the right to lead the pack, all for the sake of shedding the trammels of civilization and answering the primal call of the wild. Almost. I also had a hankering for very rare steaks after reading the book.
But in truth, I did find The Call of the Wild very appealing in many ways, but perhaps most of all because of its setting. I can’t say why, but I’ve always been fascinated by the cold landscapes of the North up to the Arctic, in particular by the vast pine forests of Canada and the snow lands that lie beyond. There’s always a part of me that constantly yearns for such places. I know I’ve spent many a moment staring at images of white, wintry landscapes illuminated by the cold beauty of the Northern Lights; of dark pine forests laden with snow beneath the brumal sky; or of massive mountains crowned with everlasting snow, reared wild and high far above the wooded plain, all while lost in wistful thought, daydreaming of being there. Ah, well. Maybe one day.
The historical background of the book is another draw. London’s writing offers a most unique insight into the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century, especially into the life of the sled dogs that toiled then, the very dogs that largely made transportation possible through the wild wastes of the frigid North. Horses could ill survive the icy climate and the frozen terrain, so strong dogs with thick fur were made to haul sleds laden with supplies, equipment, and people, and thus became highly prized and highly sought-after draft animals.
The Klondike Gold Rush was a grim and harrowing affair to all who took part in it. Nearly one hundred thousand men (and women) migrated to the Klondike to find gold, but only a handful of these prospectors were rewarded for their sacrifice and became wealthy. The vast majority went there in vain, finding not gold, but hardship, poverty, and even death. The gold rush was even more atrocious to the Native Americans who dwelt there: they lost lands, livelihoods, and countless lives owing to forced relocation, water pollution and general environmental destruction caused by mining, as well as to the diseases brought by the miners. I’ve read that London himself took part in the gold rush, spending almost a year in the Klondike, and his experiences and observations formed much of the basis of The Call of the Wild. Small wonder, then, that though the book is a work of fiction, many parts throughout feel very real.
As to London’s writing style, I found it to be simple yet very effective. He made it very easy and only natural to feel empathetic towards the characters, especially to Buck, and to become engrossed in the telling of the tale. The plot of the story is already known the moment you read the first words of the book, or in fact, the very title. But that is only as expected. Barely a few words from the start, you already know the premise of the book, how the story will progress, how the plot plays out. But you’re not reading the book to find new and different plots – you are reading it to see how masterfully London can deliver the expected plot. And masterfully he delivered. The story is well-told and leaves the reader well-satisfied in the end, or at least I was. In fact, I was so pleased with The Call of the Wild and with London’s literary prowess that I’m seriously considering another book of his, White Fang (supposedly the companion book to The Call of the Wild), as the subject of my next book overview and review.
I also noticed that the book is laden with symbolisms and allegories, which becomes evident to readers from the start: the struggle between domestication and wildness (Buck in California vs. Buck in the Arctic); the contrast between life in the soft, materialistic world, and life in a dark and brutal world beyond civilization (the American ‘Southlands’ vs. the Arctic Northlands); the variance between people living close to nature, and those who intrude upon it (Thornton and his peers vs. Mercedes, Hal, and Charles), etc.
Anyway, all in all, I thought The Call of the Wild was an exciting and engrossing book, a well-told tale from start to finish and a very satisfying one, and certainly should be read by all who love adventure, animals, and nature in general. I’ve read that this novel is one of the books commonly read and taught in American schools, but the book offers valuable lessons on grit, survival, loyalty, and love that can be appreciated not just by the youth, but also by people across all ages.