The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London are books that I’ve known about as long as I can remember – they were books my parents owned – but I’ve never read them, until now. So, I was pleased when The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s first book came out as my Classics Club Spin book. I would have read it one day anyway but the Spin gave me the nudge to read it now. I wasn’t expecting to find it such a beautiful, moving and poignant book, but it is. And it has so much packed into its 106 pages in my little hardback copy.
It begins in 1897 when Buck, a cross between a St Bernard and a Scotch Shepherd (Collie) was stolen from his home in the Santa Clara Valley in California and taken to the Yukon where strong sled dogs were needed during the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a shock to Buck (what an understatement) as he moves from his pampered life on a California ranch where he had free rein, swimming, hunting and playing to the harsh realities and cruelty of the life of a working dog in the wastes of Alaska, where the ‘law of club and fang‘ predominated. The book is told from Buck’s point of view, but this is no cutesy, sentimental animal story. Buck has to fight for existence and as he learnt by experience, instincts that were long dead came alive in him:
The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meet as they tracked it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap.
… And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. … the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again (page 24)
After changing owners several times, each worse than the one before he is eventually saved from death by John Thornton who nurses him back to health and for a while it is the love between man and dog that keeps Buck with him. Eventually however, the call of the wild is too strong!
Apart from the story which kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next it’s the quality of London’s writing, the vivid descriptions and the haunting mystical sense of the wild that captivated me – this passage for example:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. (pages 37-38)
I’ll be reading White Fang soon.