Dog-Eared Reads: The Call of the Wild reviewed

Photo: The Call of the Wild.. Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Photo: The Call of the Wild.. Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox /

As part of our “Dog-Eared Reads” series of book reviews, today we look at one of the classics of dog literature in Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.”

Jack London, everyone knows, was the author of the 1903 novel The Call of the Wild, which is generally considered the best dog book ever written when it comes to fiction.

He was also as aggressively masculine as Gaston and Ron Swanson blended together, which possibly explains why I (Wes) never much enjoyed reading him in college (I was an English major) and why I haven’t read the book until now.

The plot

In the late 1890s, Buck is an aristocratic St Bernard mix who rules over a raisin-growing plantation owned by Judge Miller, until a worker kidnaps him, where he travels by train from San Francisco up to Seattle before being broken harshly by a dog-trader selling stock to miners prospecting for gold in the Klondike region.

He is sold to a Canadian government official named Perrault and gradually becomes the leader of their sled dog team. Eventually Buck and his team are sold to a mail carrier, where after an exhausting workload they’re dumped off to a greenhorn couple named Charles and Mercedes, and her sister Hal.

These would-be miners are plainly inept and treat their dogs poorly, eventually drowning in a thawing lake. That’s when Buck passes into the hands of John Thornton, who actually loves him and whose love he’s able to return fully.

After Buck wins a bet by hauling half a ton of weight for a hundred yards, Thornton and his business partners go searching for a legendary lost mine in the Yukon, where they are ambushed by a group of Indians. Thereafter Buck joins a wolf pack and happily lives out the rest of his days.

Our thoughts

The Call of the Wild isn’t perfect.

For one, there’s a stunning amount of violence, both from animals to other animals in the name of food or territory, which is somewhat expected from nature documentaries. Secondly, from humans to other humans, which is rarely as blatant as depicted here, but it must be remembered that it was the tail end of the Old West, and a forlorn territory at that. Thirdly, the amount of animal cruelty and abuse from humans is appalling. True, the sled dogs are more akin to horses rather than how we would think of them (as pets) today, and then society was much more lenient in treating animals harshly, but even so.

A few quick examples – Buck is harshly beaten repeatedly with clubs and whips, he murders other dogs and Indians without remorse, and several dogs are executed when they can no longer perform their work duties.

But there is something almost glorious in London’s adoration of freedom in nature, and the book is certainly full of adventure. It also should be given credit for being near the front of the pack when it comes to presenting literature from the point of view of a dog, without which it’s unlikely works like Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain would have been written (though Mark Twain’s short story “A Dog’s Tale” helped pave the way here as well).

And minor characters like Skeet the Irish Setter, who is a born nurse or therapy dog, add memorably in moments of civility.

While I didn’t enjoy reading The Call of the Wild, due to an overreliance on description over dialogue to further the plot, I can see why this is a classic of American bookshelves and dog literature generally.

David Frei on his dog-filled journey through life. dark. Next

It remains to be seen how The Call of the Wild will work as a modern film, though audiences will find out on Friday, February 21, which stars Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Air Force One, Secret Life of Pets 2) and Karen Gillian (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy, Jumanji).