Only Buck wasn’t a dog; he was…
Well I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is the second time I’ve read The Call of the Wild. It is the third person narrative of Buck, a four year old half-breed St. Bernard and Scotch Shepherd. It is sort of a canine coming of age tale (bigdogsroman perhaps?) or Buck’s journey from being a comfortable domestic pet, to becoming a free and dangerous beast of the wild.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this novel in entirety at the Library of Congress, reading from one of the Library’s copies. Read more about my Library of Congress venture HERE.
This novel satisfies square N4 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Children’s Classic
I’m no dog expert, but the combination of St. Bernard and Scotch Shepherd would seem to denote great size and strength on the St. Bernard side, high intelligence from the Shepherd, and fierce loyalty from both branches of the family tree.
As the novel opens, Buck lives an easy life as the alpha dog on the Southern California estate of a wealthy judge. Buck is treated well, but is more of a prized possession than a beloved family pet. The story also begins in the early days of the Yukon Gold Rush, when there was high demand for such dogs. An unscrupulous employee dognaps and sells Buck into service. Buck goes through a procession of masters. The first is cruel and Buck learns "the law of the club". The second, a pair of French Canadian mushers, Francois and Perrault, are decent to Buck and all their dogs, but there is no love. Francois and Perrault know their livelihood depends on the dogs, so they treat them like valuable assets. Buck learns to respect such men, but not to love them. He also learns about other dogs, including the team lead, Spitz. Spitz senses Buck will challenge him one day, and is hostile from the beginning. In this stage, Buck learns "the Law of Club and Fang".
One day Francois and Perrault discuss the brewing contest between Spitz and Buck (they’re French-Canadian remember):
“One devil, dat Spitz,” remarked Perrault. “Some dam day heem keel dat Buck.”
“Dat Buck two devils,” was Francois’s rejoinder. “All de tam I watch dat Buck I know for sure. Listen: some dam fine day heem get mad lak hell an’ den heem chew dat Spitz all up an’ spit heem out on de snow. Sur. I know.”
Francois and Perrault break up several fights, trying to save both dogs, but the showdown finally comes, when the dogs are far from their human masters.
As they circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watchful for the advantage, the scene came to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemed to remember it all, - the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and the thrill of battle.
But Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness – imagination. He fought by instinct, but he could fight by head as well.
Buck is victorious, and takes over as the alpha and dog team lead.
After a grueling 2500 mile trek, when the dogs should rest for several weeks, they are sold to an inexperienced trio of Gold Rushers, who know nothing about traveling in the Yukon, and less about dog sledding. They eventually acquire a team of fourteen dogs, a subject of pride to the owners who did not know…
In the nature of Arctic travel there was a reason why fourteen dogs should not drag one sled, and that was that one sled could not carry the food for fourteen dogs.
This trio, man, wife, and the woman’s brother set off nonetheless. They do not make half the distance they expect on any given day, and consume more food than planned. The situation becomes desperate with the dogs nearly starving.
It was heartbreaking, only Buck’s heart was unbreakable.
Eventually, they reach a dangerous ice crossing, where a rugged frontiersman, John Thornton is encamped. Thornton warns them the ice is too thin, but they attempt to set out nevertheless, only Buck won't budge. He senses danger and in spite of a cruel beating he will not move. His master continues the beating until Thornton cannot watch. He intervenes, threatening to kill the man if he continues. There is a brief showdown, which of course Thornton wins; the trio leave Buck behind and set off across the ice. Almost mercifully, for the dogs' sake, they do not reach the opposite shore.
But now Buck found himself in a new existence:
Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time.
Thornton who knows how to survive in the Yukon, is also wise, demanding when need be, gentle whenever possible, and kind always. He grows to love Buck who saves his life at least once, and nearly kills a man who was threatening Thornton. Buck becomes something of a legend in the Yukon, and once when Thornton is boasting of Buck’s prowess, he gets cornered into a nearly impossible high stakes wager, that Buck could break free a sled frozen in place, with a thousand pound load, and pull it 100 yards. Just before Buck makes this mighty effort, Thornton kneels before Buck, takes his head into his hands, and whispers…
As you love me, Buck. As you love me.
Buck whined with suppressed eagerness.
You can probably guess how that turns out.
But all of this, that I’ve described so far, is really secondary to the real plot – the call of the wild. Buck is increasingly aware of a primordial urge, an ancestral memory, a savage side that is strangely familiar:
This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment.
And not only did he live by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again.
The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck…
He was not homesick. The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later day, and still later, in him, quickened and become alive again.
He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John Thornton’s fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with the marks of generations of civilization.
But most poignantly when he encounters, and joins a wolf in the wild:
Buck was wildly glad. He knew he was at last answering the call, running by the side of his wood brother toward the place from where the call surely came. Old memories were coming upon him fast, and he was stirring to them as of old he stirred to the realities of which they were the shadow.
SPOILER ALERT: The following contains a spoiler
Though you have probably guessed. Buck eventually answers the call and becomes once again, for the first time, a beast of the wild north. I remember reading this as a child and I was sad that Buck did not spend the end of his days with Thornton. Obviously, I didn’t really get London’s point. As a child, I wanted a happy ending, like Lassie Come Home, but this is not that kind of a tale. This time, I was happy when Buck answered the call.
I think this is a superb piece of writing. London undertakes the unusual challenge of writing almost entirely from the perspective of an animal; I think he did a magnificent and completely believable job. Obviously, we can’t know exactly what goes on in the mind of animals, but I believe the call of the wild is real. I’ve seen it in the intent gaze of an otherwise docile house cat as it stalks prey. I once watched my brother’s Irish Setter, make short work of a raccoon we chanced upon in the wood. I remember his bloodlust and his unmistakable pride when the battle was over. It was a bit unsettling, and at the same time beautiful. That is what London achieved with this brief masterpiece - unsettling and beautiful.