Macmillan, 1903, approximately 32,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Buck, a sturdy crossbreed canine (half St. Bernard, half Shepard), is a dog born to luxury and raised in a sheltered Californian home. But then he is kidnapped and sold to be a sled dog in the harsh and frozen Yukon Territory. Passed from master to master, Buck embarks on an extraordinary journey, proving his unbreakable spirit...
First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London's masterpiece. Based on London's experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.
The Call of the Wild, a short novel of 84 pages, is an excellent adventure — simple, straightforward, violent, starring an epic canine hero.
Buck, our furry protagonist, is half-Saint Bernard, half-German Shepard. He starts life as the lazy pet of a wealthy California judge, but during the Klondike gold rush of 1897, he gets dog-napped and sold to traders who ship him up north to become a sled-dog. This formerly gentle giant soon learns the way of fang and club, proving to be a sort of Conan among canines. Not just in brute strength and capacity for violence, but also in cunning.
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused. As the days went by, other dogs came, in crates and at the ends of ropes, some docilely, and some raging and roaring as he had come; and, one and all, he watched them pass under the dominion of the man in the red sweater. Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buck was never guilty, though he did see beaten dogs that fawned upon the man, and wagged their tails, and licked his hand. Also he saw one dog, that would neither conciliate nor obey, finally killed in the struggle for mastery.
Jack London's dogs are anthropomorphized just a little, depicted as having greater understanding and self-awareness than real dogs, but they do not speak or otherwise act like humans. Buck's gradual awakening to his true primitive nature evolves from his understanding of men with clubs, to his fatal duel with a rival huskie, to his penultimate stage of life, at last, with a man he truly loves, and then his final trek into the wilderness.
The Call of the Wild really did remind me, oddly, of Conan the Barbarian — the contrast between Buck's former easy life, and what he becomes as a free-willed warrior reliant only on his own survival skills, having abandoned the comforts and protections of civilization, seems to parallel Robert E. Howard's contrast between iron-thewed barbarians and civilized city-folk rather directly despite the protagonist being a dog.
Jack London clearly idealized the wilderness and the life of a primitive, though it may have contributed to his own early demise. In reality, of course, the life of a dog turned loose in the wild is likely to be brutal and short, but you can read The Call of the Wild and imagine Buck running free in the Alaskan Yukon, howling with his wolf-brothers.
Verdict: The Call of the Wild is a great book for boys, and I think I read it in elementary school, but I really enjoyed rereading it again. Jack London's prose still reads very smoothly and the story is full of tension and excitement. Probably one of the best "dog" stories I've ever read. 9/10.
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