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The Call of the Wild Revisited

I listened to Jack London's, The Call of the Wild today, on a long drive in the car. I was enraptured. What a fine piece of writing.  

The novel is about a dog named Buck who passes hands through various human owners. He is taken from a sunny, prosperous, and comfortable life in California and through a series of adventures, eventually is in a remote region of the Alaskan wilderness.

Buck's dog life takes him from a sedate, civilized life as a pet to a life as a wild animal.


The adventures and characters are entirely plausible for anyone who has had a taste of the Northern wilderness. To make his fine tale palatable, London needs to offer an anthropomorphic take on Buck. This comes at a cost of eliminating an essential element of wilderness experience, attested to by countless generations of explorers and adventures: the indifference of nature to the existence of the individual.


London addresses this in White Fang and here in a moving account of Buck's capture and destruction of a bull moose. But it doesn't quite work here to full effect. At the end of the book, a vast and remote region of Alaskan wilderness seems to take on the quality of Buck's neighbourhood.   


When I arrived home, I went searching online for reviews. I came across a well-established blogger, named Stuart Aken, from the U.K. who has also recently written a review of this old American classic.


Stuart also enjoyed the novel, but mentioned two problems with the story: the way that the only woman in the story is portrayed and also the attitude toward hunting and killing.


He has a point. But it is true that throughout the northern wilderness are tales told of people venturing into the wilderness who don't 'belong there' (right down to frequent stories about people falling through springtime ice - the more sophisticated among them will tell dark jokes about this being a matter of Darwin's 'natural selection' at work). And yes, a way of underlining the point is for them to tell how certain urban women don't belong out there (perfume, a bear and bug attractant, is a telltale sign).


As well, mastery of weapons, killing, machinery, wildlife, livestock, and dogs are much-admired among those who are out there close to wilderness.

When you have had an uncontrollable shiver run up your back when lying in the tent listening to wolves howling on the other side of the lake, or hiking a trail through bear country, you forget about that 'necessary evil' stuff. It is an absolute pleasure and comfort to be with someone who is a confident and skilled hunter. And a powerful, brave, and loyal dog? Priceless. Just as in the novel.

Of course, Jack London's purpose in including these elements and leaving out others is to show the Alaskan wilderness as an alternative universe with its own citizens and way of life.


We are drawn into this portrayal of strange and remote lives, those of dogs, prospectors, and wilderness men, not because they reflect our educational goals, our political and social views, or our attitudes toward violence, but precisely because they are different from who we are and how we live.


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