BLOG #27, SERIES #8
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #67
JACK LONDON’S THE CALL OF THE WILD
July 5, 2017
Reader’s Library – British Edition, n.d.
“The Call of the Wild is the greatest dog story ever written.” –Carl Sandburg
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It was a most unlikely beginning for one of the world’s most beloved writers: “It was wedding day for Flora Wellman Chaney and John London on September 7, 1876; Flora’s eight-month-old son, John Griffith Chaney, was present. From that moment on he knew real father love, but never knew who his real father was. Despite the close and warm relationship with John London, Jack always lived under a cloud of doubt as to the identity of his real father.”
–Russ Kingman, A Pictorial Life of Jack London
(New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 15
Today, with such a high percentage of children born out of wedlock, it may be difficult to relate to earlier generations where, to be born illegitimate was to be saddled with a stigma that never went away.
When W. H. Chaney (an astrologer) was told by his wife Flora that she was pregnant, he demanded that she destroy the baby. When she refused, he walked out on her and left her destitute. Twice, the despairing woman attempted suicide (once with laudanum and once with a pistol). Friends intervened just in time to save her and that of her unborn child.
In later life, even when he became world famous, two clouds would always remain: abandonment by his birth father and a month-long incarceration in the Erie County Penitentiary near Buffalo, New York. Signs were everywhere that tough times were ahead: the financial panic of 1893 would be the worst financial depression until the stock market crash of 1929. London was on foot, admiring Niagara Falls when he was arrested for “vagrancy,” condemned without a hearing, and hauled off to prison. The terrible things he witnessed during that horrendous month would never leave him.
When he returned to California, London read himself through four years of high school in the Oakland Public Library, a kindly librarian having taken him under her wing. He then enrolled in the University of California in mBerkeley but had to drop out because he ran out of money.
Then gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1897. Within a few days, the Klondike Gold Rush became a madness. Those who could, dropped their jobs and headed north; those who were unable to go, grubstaked those who could. Jack’s brother-in-law, Captain Shepherd, caught Klondicitis too, and offered to grubstake Jack if he’d go along and do the heavy work. It wouldn’t be easy, as Territory officials refused to permit anyone to join the gold-seekers unless each man brought with him a year’s supplies (hence 2,000 pounds for Jack and his brother-in-law).
Once the two of them reached Juneau, they hired space on seventy-foot-long canoes and paddled 100 miles north, up the Lynn Canal to Dyea. Then, at 85-150 pounds at a time (depending on terrain, they’d travel one mile at a time, then return for another load. It would take a solid month to move each person’s outfit 29 miles! Providing the weather held, that is.
Captain Shepherd only lasted two days before he gave up and turned back. Another took his place.
I’ll let Russ Kingman pick up here: “There is no way to adequately describe the Chilcoot Pass. Any miner who crossed it would agree that it was literal torture. It took hours to bring each load to the top. The climb up was a nightmare and the scramble back down empty-handed was nearly as bad. Jack tried every way possible to make the packing easier. . . . Each load weighed from 75 to 150 pounds and sat like a demon on his broad shoulders. From the summit to Happy Camp to Long Lake, and from Deep Lake up over the enormous hogback and down to Linderman, the man-killing race against winter kept on. Men broke their hearts and backs and wept beside the trail. But winter never faltered; the fall gales blew colder and colder, and amid bitter soaking rains and ever increasing snow flurries,” . . . they finally reached the beach of Lake Linderman on September 8 (Kingman, 73).
Here they began building boats, and by hand sawed spruce trunks into lumber. By then, the wind had shifted into the north and blew in an unending gale. The boats finally completed, they rowed through a fall blizzard to the other side of the lake. The following morning, they loaded up again and began their perilous traverse of 500 miles of lakes, rivers, box canyons, and rapids.
By early October, they heard that Dawson City was due for a terrific famine because of its mushrooming population and lack of supplies—and furthermore, there were no claims left to stake. Once Jack discovered that Henderson Creek was the only unstaked area left in the Yukon Territory, they staked claims there. On October 18, they camped three miles from Dawson City. It would be during the several weeks that Jack’s party remained in the vicinity that he would meet Marshall and Louis Bond of Santa Clara, California, and their magnificent St. Bernard dog, Jack, that would later become Buck in London’s greatest book.
Then winter hit with a vengeance, and the long bitterly cold nights seemed endless. Most of the time was spent in bunks because the floors were too cold to stand on. Later in the winter the dog-pulled sleds would leave a hard surface to travel on. It would be during this fierce winter that London learned to love and respect the intrepid dogs that pulled the sleds Canadians so needed in order to live and function in the Arctic. By May, Jack had a continually worsening case of scurvy, from lack of vegetables or fruit (their diet being bread, beans, and bacon). It was called “the Klondike Plague.” As his condition worsened, he could no longer walk or work in the mines—if he didn’t leave soon, he’d die there in the Yukon.
Early in May, the ice flow began on the Yukon River—but it was not until June 8, 1898 that London, John Thorson, and Charles M. Taylor left, floating down the mighty Yukon for over 1,500 miles! Twenty days later, they arrived at St. Michael. Since they were out of money, Jack and John stoked coal on a steamer from St. Michael to San Francisco to pay for their passage home (Kingman, 73-83, this section).
Thus London made it back to California dead broke, but with a fortune in his journals and in his head. He’d write bestsellers like The People of the Abyss, The Sea Wolf, White Fang, Martin Eden, and The Cruise of the Snark, but it was the story he brought back with him from the Yukon, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, that catapulted him to instant world-wide fame and fortune, immortalized the great St. Bernard, Jack, as Buck; and, in so doing, spawned the Age of Realism in literature.
No one should get through life without reading it at least once. At only 27,000 words, it is a quick read.
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In a cruise to Alaska, Connie and I took the train trip from Skagway to the summit of Chilcoot Pass, and marveled at the almost vertical trail to the top those gold-seekers of ‘97 were forced to climb, over and over and over until they’d each hauled up all 1,000 pounds to the top. And in Juneau, we took a ride pulled by sled dogs. Only, not being winter, it was in a cart with wheels rather than runners. We couldn’t help but notice how excited each dog became as it was harnessed, and how disconsolate the unchosen dogs were.
To us, every sentence of The Call of the Wild rings true. Every year, as we follow the annual dog-sled ritual of the Iditarod, Buck’s story lives again.