Though I know there are several wonderful stories with animal protagonists, I tend not to read them. I guess I suffer from a homo sapiens prejudice when it comes to literature. I want the stories I read to be about people. I confess this is a narrow, distorted view of the world, one that I should broaden. We share Earth with thousands of other species—tens of thousands—and some species, like dogs and cats, are integral to human society. Though we want that to benefit both humans and animals, we have to acknowledge that it’s often for the worst. The Call of the Wild tells a story where the relationship between man and beast is exploitive. It tells this story from the point of view of a dog named Buck.
That makes reading The Call of the Wild unique for me. Its protagonist is Buck, a ranch dog in California. As a cross between a St. Bernard and a Scotch Collie, he’s a big, muscular animal who lives a happy life hunting and fishing with the family. Little does he know about the Klondike Gold Rush and the demands it creates for big, muscular canines. Gold seekers need dogsleds; dogsleds need dogs. Since the weather in the far north wilderness is as brutal to dogs as to men, the demand for dogs is insatiable. That created a criminal caste specializing in the abduction, training, and transportation of dogs to serve the prospectors. Those criminals kidnapped Buck for that purpose.
As an adventure story, The Call of the Wild is a page-turner. It gripped me early—in the first paragraph—and it kept its grip on me to its last page. It’s a brutal story full of dog fights and animal cruelty. Since Jack London wrote them in a realistic style, those scenes are hard to read, but they are essential for the story being told. You know those passages in books or those scenes in movies that make you cringe, and you want to turn away or close your eyes or jump ahead to the next chapter. It’s too hard to read or watch. You wonder if you’re strong enough, emotionally, to know this about the world. Adult that you might be, you want to retain your childhood naivety. But you have to watch that scene in the movie; you have to read that chapter in the story. To understand the story, the character’s arc, you need to know what happens during those moments. But something deeper, darker prevents us from turning away. Since we suffer a curiosity about evil, these scenes and passages fascinate us. We need to know! They place us in an emotional paradox, creating the desire to look away and the need to see.
The Call of the Wild contains so many of those scenes that it’s as if the entire novel is one such scene. Though the protagonist is a dog, the themes it explores are very human. Greed and animal cruelty are explored, but also more positive themes like kindness and loyalty. Like most protagonists, Buck experiences a character arc. His arc takes him from being a ranch dog in California to become a wild animal in the Klondike wilderness. He faced many antagonists, including that wilderness, but in the end, that wilderness becomes his chief ally.
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with war, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Attic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coasts to protect them from the frost.
Since Jack London spent time in the Klondike during the rush, he wrote about Buck’s journey with authority, experience, and sincerity. Born in 1876, London was the son of Flora Wellman. His father was probably William Chaney, who abandoned Flora when she refused to abort London. Later in life, Chaney denied he was the father—he claimed Flora had several lovers—but most scholars believed he lied. Also, in 1876, Flora, now Jack’s mother, married John London, who raised Jack as his own. They lived in the San Francisco Bay area, mainly in Oakland.
As a young man, Jack London tried many careers, from oyster pirating to working as a seaman, until he ventured to Alaska to join the prospectors. He began writing stories then. I suspect it was also then when he decided he wanted to be nothing but a writer. When he returned to California, he married Bessie Maddem and had two daughters with her. That marriage failed. Since it was a marriage based on friendship rather than love, London sought other women to satisfy his passion. One such woman, Charmian Kittredge, became his second wife in 1905. His writing made him a rich man—one of the first writers to achieve commercial success—and he built a ranch for himself in California. He died in 1916 at the ranch.
Buck’s first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Every hour was filled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed life ws this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang.
The Call of the Wild had inspired several movie and television adaptations. The first was a silent film from 1923, but the last one was a 2020 movie starring Harrison Ford as John Thornton, Buck’s final and kindest master. Though I don’t usually write about adaptions in my book reviews, I want to tell that you this movie was a disaster. It asks the question: What happens if we take one of the most violent dog novels ever written and turn it into a family-friendly film? What happens? What happens if you take a fine wine and cut it with 70% water? You ruin it. That’s what happens. They ruined the story; they destroyed Buck’s visceral arc. I’ve seen several disappointing movie adaptations in my life, but this was the first one that made me mad. If they had visited the library, they could’ve found a more appropriate canine novel to adapt as a children’s movie. Nothing in Buck’s story is PG; it deserves an R-rated treatment.
I strongly recommend The Call of the Wild as a novel you should read. It’s entertaining and thought-provoking. It deals with the very timely theme of animal cruelty, and it forces us to think about the nature of owning an animal. In recent news, bandits shot Lady Gaga’s dog walker to abduct her French bulldogs. When I first heard that story, I guessed the villains wanted to ransom the dogs, but that wasn’t the case. Abducting dogs to sell on the black market is still a problem in our country. That the criminals shot the dog walker hints at the money to be made from it. Fortunately, the dog walker survived his wounds; more good fortune allowed the authorities to recover and return the dogs to Lady Gaga. The alleged criminals are in jail, awaiting trial. When I learned these details, I stopped thinking about the Lindbergh kidnapping and started thinking about The Call of the Wild. Jack London loved animals and activated for their humane treatment. With that attitude, he wrote The Call of the Wild.