The Call of the Wild – Jack London
It is a strange quirk, I have to admit, but whenever I go away I like, if possible, to read or re-read a book which relates to the area I am visiting. It must be over half a century since I first read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which was first serialised in four parts in The Saturday Evening Post in 1903 before it was reissued as a book by Macmillan Press. It has never been out of print since and, somewhat unfairly I feel, has been categorised as a children’s book (or, perhaps, more accurately for young adults) but there is more in it than an anthropomorphic tale of a dog, Buck.
London was part of the Klondike gold rush, travelling up to Dyea in Alaska and then back and forth up the formidable Chilkoot Pass with gear and provisions, sufficient to satisfy the Canadian officials that they had enough provisions to see a year out. He eventually reached Dawson City and his party staked eight claims but during the winter of 1897/8 he contracted scurvy. With his companions he sailed by raft down the Yukon river for around 2,000 miles until he reached St Michael where he earned his passage back to California.
Whilst he may not have earned his fortune by striking gold, London came away with enough material to write his classic novella. He had landed at Dyea but in 1898 prospectors decided to take the longer, slightly easier passage up White Pass. I travelled along it by train and it was a winding, precipitous route and I could only admire the fortitude and determination of men who struggled against all adversity to get to the top and reach Canada.
Initially, horses were the preferred animal to carry the prospectors’ loads but they proved incapable of withstanding the conditions. Regrettably, many horses were left to die or pushed over the cliff edges when they had reached the end of their useful lives. So common was the practice that White Pass was nicknamed Dead Horse Pass. Strong dogs with thick fur, on the other hand, proved up to the task and were highly prized and commanded a premium. Such a dog was Buck.
When we first meet the dog, he is a pampered pooch but is stolen and sold by his master’s impecunious cook and shipped off via Seattle to Alaska. Buck’s treatment is brutal and he quickly realises that in order to survive he has to find his savage inner self. The book recounts a string of adventures as Buck passes from owner to owner, having to endure the Tenderfeet who are ingenues to the wild before being rescued by his kindest master, John Thornton. When Thornton is killed by members of the Yeehat tribe, the only thing for Buck to do is to answer the call of the wild and join a wolf pack.
London’s style is lucid and gripping, the language simple but evocative. At a superficial level it is a great adventure story and to tell it from the perspective of a dog is a masterstroke. But Buck is just the mouthpiece for a bigger message; that humanity’s existence has always been and always will be one of struggle against his environment and that these struggles strengthen our nature. As the naïve Tenderfeet discovered, and doubtless countless prospectors in real life, nature does not bend easily to the whim of civilised values.
This is a tale from the extremes of civilisation where in order to survive old civilised values have to be discarded. Those who survive are at one with the wildness and savagery of the forces of Nature. There is danger around every corner but whether it be wolf packs or brutal indigenous tribes, London doesn’t depict it as pure savagery. It is understandable in the moral compass of an area that what we call civilisation has not put its stamp on. For London this is a good thing and if I took anything away from my visit to Alaska and my reread of this book, it was that we need to experience and understand these places to better appreciate and value what we have got.