7. The Sea Wolf

by Jack London

Didn't like it. Well, I enjoyed reading about a turn of the century gentleman suffering so greatly. Having never worked a day in his life, he finds himself aboard a schooner headed for Japan to hunt seals. This is a result of a highly implausible accident in San Francisco bay between this man's ferry and a steamer. The crew on The Ghost pluck him from the freezing bay waters but refuse to drop him off. Instead they sail out of the bay with the wealthy wimp and are at sea for most of the story.

The gentleman (on land, at least), Humphrey Van Weyden, becomes "Hump" the cabin boy/dishwasher at sea. This scene where the incredibly brutish and violent Captain Wolf Larsen is interrogating the gentleman his crew just saved, was fun:

"What do you do for a living?"
I confess I had never had such a question asked me before, nor had I ever canvassed it. I was quite taken aback, and before I could find myself had sillily stammered, "I-I am a gentleman."
His lip curled in a swift sneer.
"I have worked. I do work," I cried impetuously, as though he were my judge and I required vindication, and at the same time very much aware of my arrant idiocy in discussing the subject at all.
"For your living?"
There was something so imperative and masterful about him that I was quite beside myself-- "rattled," as Furuseth would have termed it, like a quaking child before a stern schoolmaster.
"Who feeds you?" was his next question.
"I have an income," I answered stoutly, and could have bitten my tongue the next instant. "All of which, you will pardon my observing, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wish to see you about."
But he disregarded my protest.
"Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men's legs. You've never had any of your own. You couldn't walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand."

That stuff is fun but the stormy, tortured, brutally primitive ship's captain seems annoyingly cardboard in the shadow of Captain Ahab. Captain Wolf Larsen seems to have little reason for his excessive brutality, excessively muscular body or for his desire to be at the helm of a seal hunting schooner full of men who'd love to see him dead.

Sorry, I much prefer the character of the wolf in White Fang than the one in The Sea Wolf. I much prefer the clarity and experiential nature of the ways of London's wild than the overblown primitivist/industrialist (?) philosophy bantered broodingly in the cabin of his ship, one that felt more like a stage setting than a schooner out on the Pacific.

I guess I'm really dissatisfied after my great experiences reading Call of the Wild and White Fang. I'm loving London, but I'm staying on land.

6. White Fang

by Jack London

After reading The Call of the Wild, White Fang was just begging for a turn. I'm definitely on a Jack London kick.

White Fang is about a wolf born in the wild, but through unusual circumstances ends up in captivity where he endures unimaginable cruelties for much of his life. This renders White Fang a relatively tamed (obeys his cruel master, but wishes for the chance to tear out his throat) but violent, ferocious outcast of a wolf. He becomes the formidable enemy of the "man-gods" and his own kind. It's the latter that makes this a heartbreaking story.

Once again London's thoughts on the ongoing symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs are conveyed in the epic journey of a single canine. First is London's fascination with how dogs lend themselves to human mastery. White Fang depicts the extremes of human cruelty and abuse, and later kindness and love, from the point of view of a wolf. One great thing about London's writing his how his wolves think like wolves. Dogs and wolves don't think like humans. Instinct drives them and the discipline of experience teaches them what to do and what not to do. They don't share the "wide vision" of humans. London believes that wild beasts get quite as much pleasure as pain out of the life that they are intended to live. It is under the brutality of humans that White Fang is nearly driven to madness. And yet it is the love of another human master that saves this wolf in the end. Hmm. Man and dog.

Although London presents the wild's feral nature as something separate from human nature, White Fang is torn between the impulse to fidelity to (and loyalty safety and security of) his "man-god," and the ever-beckoning call of the Wild. Both are in his nature but, like all creatures, White Fang's nature is like clay molded by his environment.

I'm no expert but I'll dare say that as a biographer of wild animals, London has no match. This story is incredibly satisfying.

I'm left with a question: does the wild call because it is the opposite of a civilization we blame for what ails us (so Romantic!), or is the call something that humans instinctively feel? I'm stuck on this one. But I do know that The Call of the Wild and White Fang have stirred some instincts in me that are not fit for New York City living!


"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug." - Mark Twain

5. Wilderness

by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle is a favorite Irish author in this household. Among his best novels are Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, A Star Called Henry and the Barrytown series: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. WIlderness, however, is a "young readers" book about a Dublin family that books an adventurer vacation in Finland.

It's really only the mother and two sons that go, while dad and daughter have the good sense to stay home. The daughter, Grainne, is to meet her biological mother for the first time since mom abandoned her in early childhood, while the boys and step mom travel to the icy north. Both stories are told in alternating chapters.

The boys have a thrill a minute as they bounce around in sleds pulled by hearty huskies. Grainne's experience at home is a sort of emotional wilderness as she reunites with her mother. Part roaring adventure, part family drama.

You get the idea. It's fun.

4. The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

Buck. Hell of a dog.

This is one of those that I didn’t read when I was supposed to in my intellectually degenerate youth. I really wish I’d given this one a shot back then, though, as it would have affirmed my repressed animal intuition, just as being thrust into the Yukon wilderness did for the domesticated Buck.

Yep, the protagonist is a dog. Buck grew up a privileged dog on the property of a judge in Cailfornia, enjoying a life alongside his owners on hunting trips and warming his paws at the fireplace. You know, the sort of hearty, happy life a shepherd/St. Bernard mix might dream of. That is until one of the hired help secretly sells him to dog sledders from way up north. It isn’t long before Buck finds himself in the extremely harsh, brutal, primitive world of the frozen Yukon wilderness among dogs and men of a different order.

Buck must learn the ways of the wild, “the law of club and fang,” fast if he is going to survive.

Enough of the summary. The story is about the remarkable dog’s transformation from a domesticated, loyal family dog to a resourceful, primal ass-kicker of a dog (albeit one sold to slavery). It is incredibly beautiful.

And it’s an allegory, which invited me wonder a great deal about my own ability to survive without the sense-dulling safety net of civilized society. What if I was thrown into a world of wilderness? Could I survive? How would I fare when governed by the law of club and fang? I really do think I’d do well with the primitive life… but would not choose it.

Here’s a long excerpt from this amazing little book:

He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life. A dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fighting off two or three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. To remedy this, he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him. He watched and learned. When he saw Pike, one of the new dogs, a clever malingerer and thief, slyly steal a slice of bacon when Perrault's back was turned, he duplicated the performance the following day, getting away with the whole chunk. A great uproar was raised, but he was unsuspected; while Dub, an awkward blunderer who was always getting caught, was punished for Buck's misdeed.

This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence.` It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feeling; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.

Not that Buck reasoned it out. He was fit, that was all, and unconsciously he accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All his days, no matter what the odds, he had never run from a fight. But the club of the man in the red sweater had beaten into him a more fundamental and primitive code. Civilized, he could have died for a moral consideration, say the defense of Judge Miller's riding whip; but the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defense of a moral consideration and so save his hide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of his stomach. He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out of respect for club and fang. In short, the things he did were done because it was easier to do them than not to do them.

Adaptability, cunning, physical strength, instinct, courage, and the willingness to administer violence. And even among dogs it is imagination that ensures ones survival. Those are the means of survival of the primitive life. But what about happiness?

As Buck becomes more adept at survival (among dogs and brutal men), he begins to experience something primordial rise within him. Leading the chase for a rabbit, he becomes intimate with his true dog nature:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive. This ecstasy, the forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

I want that.

I did this story no justice whatsoever. I highly recommend this book. It’s a life-affirming story of a dog who finds freedom, and one you will not soon forget.

3. Engaging Grammar: Practical Advice for REAL Classrooms

by Amy Benjamin with Tom Oliva

Oh, you wouldn't believe what happens to the semicolon in the end!