Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild Part 2

Thinking about London’s concept that domestic animals are drawn back to the wild when they get the chance, I am reminded of the nonfiction book Shy Boy, by Monty Roberts, in which a wild mustang is captured, trained, ridden, fed grain and hay, and then released again to run with a wild band of mustangs. In the end, the horse comes back to camp. I am also reminded of the heavily researched biography of Daniel Boone by John Mack Faragher I read a few years back, in which the quintessential woodsman was portrayed as a noble, honest man after years in the woods, not as someone who began to hark back to an early, lawless state …

But back to Call of the Wild.  One evening last week I read up to the dramatic place where the dog hero of the story, Buck, is hitched to a 1000 pound sled and has to first break it free of the ice and then pull it 1000 feet to win a bet for his beloved master. I handed my son the book. “Read it yourself,” I said and listened as the narrative animated my son’s reading and he plowed on ahead through the difficult text, anxious to find out who won. I was thankful in the moment to London, for creating a drama so intense that the struggling student would forget the difficulty of reading for a few moments in his desire to follow the episode to its conclusion.

But as I witnessed this, there was another discussion going on inside my head, the question from childhood, about London and his unfinished Wolf House, and it tied in with what I saw as philosophical errors in this book. The wilderness, I maintain – and this is also my training from childhood – ennobles, it does not barbarize. So the thesis of the book, that the wild calls man and dog back to savagery, does not completely sit well with me, no matter how much it thrills the adventure-center of the brain …

The conclusion I made is that London enshrined and revered animal instinct and his own visceral impulses, and that is why he has Buck responding to the call of the wild. Real life in Alaska may have weakened the sled dog’s attachment to men inasmuch as the food supply was scanty, but for almost every domestic beast, the trade of freedom for food has been made.

Re-reading an interview with biographer Daniel Dyer this morning, I see that Dyer categorizes London as a “minor writer.” From a classical perspective, London seems to be more than that – Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” in my mind makes Call of the Wild a canonical children’s book. Yet his fame is less than Hemingway, less than Tolstoy. When I remember Tolstoy I think I have the answer – both writers wrote exhaustively of their own experience and created multiple stories throughout years – but Tolstoy, whose characters spring from some profound well of understanding of human beings and their motivations, creates a greater bond of understanding with adult readers because he understands more of what we are thinking and feeling. With London, it is more understanding what London thinks and feels, and for me that’s less interesting.

I sense, however, that I was not a fair judge. From the beginning I was worried by the yawning mouth of the empty basements of the Wolf House, I saw too early the ultimate conclusion of London’s adventuring. Perhaps it would be fairer to turn to the classroom. When taking a book-interest inventory of my fourth graders last year, I noted that stories about dogs had tremendous appeal, beating all other subjects. Second place went to death-defying stories about adventure, especially popular with boys. Call of the Wild combines these two themes more successfully than any other book I can remember except, perhaps, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. For this, combining a “pulp fiction” type story line with deep thematic elements about the meaning of life and the natural human love of animals, London deserves his proper measure of respect. I place him firmly, then, in the canon of great children’s literature.

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