The Nexus Nebula Saga
The Nexus Nebula Saga
Musings on books, writing, fatherhood, and other clichés.
The Call of the Wild
Jack London, 1903
Born of Jack London’s fascination with the rough life of the Gold Rush miners and the support network that sprang up around them, The Call of the Wild is a fantastical yet uncompromising look at an environment most of us will never experience. At the time of publication, London caught some flak for his anthropomorphized protagonist, Buck. But London was no revisionist, trying to paint the natural world as civilized and romantic. This story is more of a metaphor, with Buck at times representing man more than animal.
Buck lives an idyllic life of sporting and comfort on the California property of his master, a wealthy judge. Bred from a Saint Bernard father and a collie mother, Buck is a strong and athletic dog.
When word comes around that men in the distant north have struck gold, Buck is among the dogs kidnapped and sold into sled work. Enraged at his undignified treatment, Buck lashes out at his new handlers, only to be beaten into submission.
While it was Buck’s powerful body that made him fit to be a sled dog, he has another quality that makes him able to survive in that environment. He is observant and intuitive, and he quickly learns the new rules of this savage, hardscrabble life. There is no dignity or sense of fair play here, as there had been in the domain of the judge. Here, you steal food or get none. If you get in a fight, you had better stay on your feet. If you don’t, it’s over for you.
Buck is keen enough to learn some of these lessons vicariously, but he is forced to learn a few firsthand as the rough sled-dog life rips away every shred of his old life and self. Through a series of trials, masters, and antagonists, Buck gradually sheds his civility and steps more into the life of the animal. His struggle to survive and the transformation he undergoes reveal modern sensibilities as a fragile veneer. Strip it away, and all that’s left is the savage will of the predator. Embrace it, do what’s necessary to survive with no regard for fairness, and you may live. Try to hold on to modern conveniences and manners, and you will certainly perish.
This is my all-time favorite book. The strongest moments come when Buck is forced to witness some unfortunate soul learning these lessons with a horrible finality. Soon after being stolen, Buck watches another domestic dog trying to make friends and being killed. Later on, after Buck has risen through violence to the role of lead sled dog, he is sold to a family who is completely unprepared for the journey. Their bickering (and their sled overloaded with luggage and convenience items) leads to disaster for the team.
Towards the end, as Buck has only threads of his old self remaining, he is held to civility by his love for the man John Thornton. A couple of eye-rolling moments ensue as Buck pulls some overblown feats out of his great love for this man. But the message stays consistent underneath. I won’t spoil the climax, but it is thematically appropriate to solidify Buck’s complete transformation from civil to wild. A great little book and a great reminder to keep and embrace the animal inside us all, as the modern world is more fragile than we might want to admit.
They say everyone is only nine meals away from savagery, after all. Would you be willing to do what it takes to survive? Read this book for some thoughts by a man who lived the life.
Kevin C Hensley
Modernization brings increasing social control. Young men taking responsibility and having families are our best hope of pushing back against what is coming. I write fiction geared toward encouraging them to do so.