Friday 16 May 2014

The Call of the Wild

I really thought that I had read this book in my own, rather remote, childhood. Now I'm not so sure. As I was reading I was waiting for that spark of recognition, the echoes of childhood memory stirred within. It never happened. Perhaps I didn't read it when I was a kid. Maybe I saw a movie, or tv show? Perhaps it's just so famous that I thought I must have read it? Whatever the case I'm very glad to have finally had the opportunity to read The Call of the Wild now. 

Perhaps I just confused it with one of my
favourite ever Far Side cartoons?

For some reason I was expecting not to like it particularly, the story or the writing style- but I actually quite enjoyed both. Of course some parts of the story are a bit graphic and I almost squinted while reading sometimes, but it's actually quite a compelling story. 

I like his writing too. It's surprising from the very first sentence. 

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair from Puget Sound to San Diego. 

It seems a rather modern start. And some of the writing is quite lyrical at times. 

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. 

Buck is a large, mixed- breed dog leading a rather cozy and comfortable life on Judge Miller's property in the Santa Clara Valley when he is stolen and sold to travel north to the Kondike Goldrush of the 1890s. His pampered life is gone, and he must adapt to this harsh, brutal, cold and punishing new environment to survive.

And not only did he learn by experience but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. 

There is much savagery in The Call of the Wild, as you would expect in a frontier story. Much of it meted out by men (and most of the characters are men, as it would have been), and some by dogs. Buck has a succession of owners- some benevolent, some downright mean. There are many deaths- both human and canine. As is often the way in books the dog deaths were more moving than the human deaths. Although the deaths of the dogs were often quite prolonged affairs and the people dispatched much more quickly- but often as violently. The fight between Buck and rival Spitz. Pages and pages of Dave's suffering made me cry. I was glad that we didn't ever really come to Buck's death as we do in so many dog books-books like Old Yeller or My Life in Dog Years.

There was much about the cruelty of nature in those final chapters.

Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed. 

Some parts of The Call of the Wild are now dated, but that's ok, it was published in 1903 after all.  Of course the internet now is full of dog and cat stories, which is fine. But it seems that there are still modern day dogs just  like Buck. I'm not sure that my dogs are all that Buck-like...

They must be able to hear The Call from here
it's a favourite spot
in the winter sun

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