White Fang by Jack London
Originally published 1906
Airmont, 1st printing, 1964
Genre: adventure, literature
Synopsis & Review: Two men travel through the frozen Northland, intent on delivering their cargo-a fallen compatriot—to Fort McHenry. Death stalks them through the Wild in the form of a wolfpack, starving and implacable. One particularly cunning member is a she-wolf, who lures the pair’s sled dogs away from the safety of the fire into the pack’s ravening maw. One by one the dogs disappear, and one of the men succumbs. At the last moment, as the pack closes in on the last man, rescue comes.
From there the novel follows the she-wolf, running with the pack’s leader, One-Eye. When she whelps, he hunts for their family, until he is caught and killed by a lynx. After that, the she-wolf raises the puppies alone, through a famine that takes all but one of her cubs. The two are caught one day by the brother of the she-wolf’s former owner, Grey Beaver, and so the she-wolf—Kiche—and her cub leave the Wild to live with Man. In the Indian camp, the cub—named White Fang by Grey Beaver—learns the rules of Man, but is shunned by the other dogs, who view him as a wolf. White Fang learns to defend himself, becoming more savage and implacable than the other dogs who band against him. White Fang grows into a ferocious creature and makes a name for himself as a killer of other dogs when Grey Beaver takes him on trading journeys along the Mackenzie River. When Grey Beaver heads to Fort Yukon for trade, White Fang accompanies him, becoming famous among the white men of the Gold Rush, too. It is here that White Fang catches the eye of Beauty Smith, a man ugly in both body and spirit. Coveting White Fang, Beauty offers Grey Beaver a trade, but is summarily refused. Cunningly, Beauty offers Grey Beaver alcohol, and when the Indian has exhausted all his resources buying and drinking more, Beauty returns; in his desperation, Grey Beaver trades White Fang for a bottle of liquor. Thriving on pain, Beauty torments White Fang, whipping him into an ever-greater frenzy of hatred, pain, and savagery. Fighting for Beauty, White Fang is reduced to his most primal state before the intervention of one Weedon Scott, who sets out to salvage him.
Due to their animal protagonists, London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild are often viewed as juvenalia; indeed, I first read them in elementary school. However, London vividly depicts an unrelentingly savage world in both the wild and in man’s cities. Violence is common, whether it is the hunt for survival or cruelty as an exercise of power, but London does not moralize. Both White Fang and Beauty Smith are products of their environments; neither could have turned out any other way, and London condemns neither of them for behaving as such. A stark, largely unsentimental view of nature and civilization, White Fang exhibits the indomitable will to survive that London saw as essential and laudable, but survival is not the sole theme. When rescued by Scott, White Fang learns to temper loyalty with love, and is effectively civilized by Scott in California, just as Buck was de-civilized in the North. White Fang offers redemption, demonstrating that though circumstances shape us, as they change, so can we.
Cover: A totally bitchin’ painting depicts Kiche taunting the sled dogs she would later devour. Yeah! Fuck yeah!
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness–a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.