It would be fair to say that in his youth Buck was a bit of a lazy charmer.
Sure, he worked out – hunting and long runs outdoors kept down the fat and hardened his muscles – but his folks were well-to-do and there was no expectation that Buck need find something useful to keep himself occupied.
If he’d read newspapers he might have known trouble was brewing far away that would threaten his privileged lifestyle.
But, Buck, just a ‘trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular condition’, thought life at the Big House would go on as it always had.
And, then a chance encounter with a treacherous gambler changed Buck’s life forever…
Manuel, one of the gardener’s helpers loved to play Chinese lottery, but gambling requires money and his wages did ‘not lap over the needs of a wife and numerous progeny’.
But this is 1897 and the Klondike gold strike is dragging men from all over the world to the Yukon in north western Canada.
And what those men need – besides a lucky break – are big dogs with strong muscles and furry coats to protect them from the frost.
Buck, a powerful St Bernard-Scottish shepherd cross, fits the bill.
So, for a few pieces of silver, Manuel sells Buck into slavery where, as part of a team of dogs pulling government despatches across the frozen north, he learns the rule of club and fang.
And, that’s the point at which I thought; ‘Oh no!’
Brutal new world
Because, for one awful moment, it looked like Jack London’s classic short adventure novel The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, was shaping up to become a US version of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, with a noble beast subjected to intolerable suffering at the hands of a succession of cruel and uncaring owners.
There’s nothing noble about Buck though – he quickly learns to survive, and thrive, in his brutal new world.
He becomes, in the words of one new master, ‘a red-eyed devil’.
Complex and thought-provoking
Another praises his work ethic and quickness to learn but though Buck learns that ‘a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed’, he refuses to fawn and lick their hands.
This is a beautifully written, complex and thought-provoking metaphorical and allegorical exploration of what it really means to be both man and beast.
Is civilisation really only skin-deep?
It’s an interesting question. The Call of the Wild was published less than 40 years after the end of the American civil war which ended slavery and, though London, a socialist and political activist, was undoubtedly seeking to raise public awareness about animal cruelty, he was also asking his readers to look more closely at themselves and the things they stand for and believe in.
One year into Donald Trump’s Presidency, and with our own government embroiled in Brexit negotiations, it’s a question as appropriate now as then.
At just 88 pages (a little under 32,000 words) The Call of the Wild is a comparatively short book. It seems very churlish, therefore, to wish it had been even shorter – but, unfortunately, my interest in Buck and his journey began to wane during the last chapter-or-so.
Perhaps this was because by then Buck had almost completely responded to the call of the wild and it became harder to relate to him?
Or, perhaps, there had been simply one trek across the frozen north and one dog fight to many?
Whatever the answer, I’m glad I read it – and it provoked a stimulating book club discussion that never quite resolved the question of how deep is the call of the wild?
Review by Sue Featherstone.
Available to buy on Amazon.