I’m not sure why but when I made my five book reading list for my barely literate young man, I had a specific order in mind for the books. Fahrenheit 451 was first because it’s fairly short and straightforward making for an accessible and enjoyable read with the ‘big ideas’ right there to grasp. The next book is Call of The Wild by Jack London. It’s longer yet still a pretty straightforward adventure story but has some more subtle things going for it. It also has some fond personal memories so maybe I’ll go at it from that angle.
I don’t know about these days but there was a time when this novel was considered a classic ‘boy’s book’ like Old Yeller or The Yearling. Perhaps it’s the adventure aspect which gets it cast as juvenile literature but it’s actually pretty dark and melancholy with some pretty intense scenes of violence and survival. I couldn’t have been more than ten when I read it which, in retrospect, might have been a little young. Not because a boy can’t handle the dark tone but because the underlying theme of Buck finding his way back to his wild and wolfish roots and the artful way London lays it out, might be lost on a young boy.
Buck, if you haven’t read it, is a dog. A big and content domesticated dog in a respectable and comfortable California house. The gardener of the household steals Buck and sells him and the dog is sent to Alaska. The story takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush so sled dogs and their importance is a big deal. Buck is taken on by a pair of French Canadians who train him for that kind of work. Eventually he learns the ways of the pack well enough to challenge the lead dog. Buck wins that fight and the loser is killed by the rest of the pack.
It was this fight and the aftermath where I started to get the idea that there was more going on here. Even though Buck is the protagonist it’s not from his point of view. We don’t hear his thoughts in English or anything like that. We simply see what he does and the reactions of the humans around him and the reader has to determine what that really means. In the case of the fight, the sledders are less concerned with the loss of one dog and instead admire Buck and his refusal to pull until he’s given his rightful place at the head of the pack. He’s now a competent and valuable sled dog and he’s sold again to a family of greenhorns who are woefully ill prepared for life in the Klondike. It was at this point that the book takes a big place in my personal memories.
My dad saw I was reading it and started to ask me what I thought. My dad read a lot but usually military histories of the twentieth century and non-fiction books about the Old West. Over the years though he would occasionally surprise me with some more ‘bookish’ literary knowledge. This was the first of those times. He had read it when he was a boy and now we shared that as father and son. He never lectured me, just asked me where I was in the story and what I thought about what was happening.
In this manner I was able to realize that London wanted me to be disgusted with the greenhorns’ incompetence. Buck eventually takes up with Thornton, a man who is much more in tune with Buck’s indomitable spirit. Buck isn’t Thornton’s property but rather his companion and when Buck starts to hear that Call, Thornton doesn’t stop him. Again, if you haven’t read it I won’t spoil the exact manner of the ending. But Buck finally heeds the call and runs off into the Wild. It was a deeply affecting book for a young boy made personal by sharing it with my father. Since my young friend hasn’t read it I hope the same effect would make him hungry for more books with the same power.
- Crash Course in Literacy (writingiscake.com)