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and now, for something completely different.

White Fang – book review

White Fang - by Jack London

Okay, so I have to be completely honest here.  Why did I read this book?  Because it was free when I installed Aldiko on my Galaxy S.  For lack of a better explanation, “it was there,” and I felt bad about it being there on my phone and not being read.  It’s a classic piece of literature, so I figured I owed it to history to read it.  I mean, it was there.  The good news is, I wasn’t disappointed in the least.  Spoiler alert – I do have a bit of a synopsis in here, because I like to remember what I read later on.

White Fang – written by Jack London and first published in 1906 – is the story of a dog who is part dog, part wolf, and his journey from birth in the wilds of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush to a kind of domestication and eventually the hills outside of San Francisco.  It really is an exploration of mood, emotion and temperament, as White Fang adapts his own make-up to his life’s changing circumstances.  It’s at once bleak and triumphant, as Jack London very successfully explores the will to survive, and the lengths to which life will go to preserve itself, even when consumed by hate.  It’s interesting though, it’s not really hate as an emotion, it’s more hate as a reaction to the circumstances, where the image of “hate” is the logical response for life to preserve itself.

The book starts with a couple of northern men trying to bring the body of an explorer back from the Yukon wilderness.  They have a dog team, and a destination.  Unfortunately, it’s also a time of great famine in the wilds, and their route is being shadowed by a wolf pack.  Every night when they make camp, the wolf pack draws itself in closer.  The men count on the flames of their camp fire to keep the pack at bay, but eventually hunger drives the wolves past their own timid limits and the terrified dog team starts losing a member each night.  The men aren’t afraid, they’re more angry than anything.  It doesn’t end well for the team or the men, but I’ll leave it to you to read about their fate.

Eventually, the famine lifts and the story then follows one of the wolves – a female – as spring starts in earnest.  She and her mate explore the wilds together, and eventually settle into a den, where the female has a litter of puppies.  The wilds are cruel, and not all life can survive.  The lone surviving puppy eventually starts to explore the world after his father dies.  Under his mother’s tutelage, he starts to learn the ways of survival in the wilds.  London’s description of the learning is very matter of fact, it’s not like the wolves have personality or rational thought, it’s more like they’re capable of storing rules and laws that they can use to govern their approach to the world, and that can shape their disposition and temperament.  An example would be “some living things I can eat, and some living things can eat me.”

The mother turns out to be part-dog, and fled her master’s camp during the famine to fend for herself.  We find this out when she and the puppy come upon a Native camp and one of the men recognizes her.  Living in the wilds, she is only concerned for her puppy and acts out against the men in a protective fashion, but the one man who recognizes her calls her name, and she willingly comes into the fire from the wilds.  This is where the world of men starts to make its impression on White Fang, so-named for an attack he makes in defiance of mankind and protection of his mother.  His mother is tied up in the camp, and while he tries to lead her back to the wilds on instinct, her domestication keeps her in the camp.  This in turn keeps White Fang there.

He learns many things about his place in the world by being in the camp.  Mostly, that he is not in charge.  Eventually, his master gives up his mother to another man who leaves the camp, and White Fang is separated forever from her.  What begins at this point is a descent into hate, an education in survival, a redemption in duty, and an apparent life of loneliness.  I swear, I almost gave up at a couple points because the world around White Fang seemed so bleak with the way people treated him.  It went from accepted (and even craved) subservience to abuse at the hands of other members of the camp to persecution from other dogs in the camp not willing to accept his wolfish tendencies, to downright exploitation at the hands of a horrible white man from a fort who forces him into dog fights.  At this point, White Fang is basically painted as the epitome of the abused and vicious dog that you see in the news being reported as likely needing to be put down.

Thankfully, it doesn’t end that way, and I’m glad I read to the end of the book.

Jack London’s writing is at once simple and complicated.  It’s simple because each sentence almost feels like it’s coming out of the mind of someone only capable of thinking in black and white.  It’s not even a process like determining black or white, it’s like White Fang sees the world very simply as “things are like this” or “things are like that,” it’s not like he’s capable of seeing the alternative in anything – there’s just the one way.  So the entire book and world is described in those terms.  That’s how the writing is also complicated, because being able to keep up that pretense of single-mindedness in the point of view of White Fang is pretty genius, actually.  The world provides stimulus, and White Fang reacts: he never ever thinks about it.  His learning is more about survival and spirit than it is about knowledge and enrichment.

I guess that’s why they call books like these classics: they are really good.  I really do recommend the read, because it is a very satisfying book in the end.  I might have to check out what other books are out there for free in e-book land!

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