Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The God of His Fathers by Jack London

Sophomore slump
This is Jack London’s second collection of short stories, first published in 1901. All the stories take place during the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, or elsewhere in the North. About half of the stories feature the inhabitants of Forty Mile, the recurring cast of characters that were introduced in his first collection. In this book London is still finding his way as a writer, and this selection of tales is a mixture of the masterpiece and the mediocre.

The two best stories in the book are similarly titled, though couldn’t be more different. In “Grit of Women,” Indian trail guide Sitka Charley relates the story of how he and his wife Passuk made a grueling 700 mile journey to the Bering Sea during a time of famine. It’s the type of gritty odyssey of man (and woman) struggling against harsh conditions that London does best. In “The Scorn of Women,” the three most attractive women in Dawson vie for the attention of a clueless mining king as his fiancee makes the long trip up from the States. It’s a lighthearted and clever comedy of manners, not the kind of thing London usually excels at, but this one works. Women feature prominently in many of the stories, ranging from devoted angels to evil femme fatales, and are always depicted as more intelligent and hard working than their male counterparts.

Native American characters are also well represented in this volume. Several stories are ill-served by one or two paragraphs extolling the destiny of the white man to triumph over the Indian. At times this obsession with race becomes a distraction and a detraction from otherwise enjoyable stories. London’s antiquated misrepresentations of Darwinism don’t translate well to the present day. To his credit, however, in London’s stories the whites do not always triumph, but are often outsmarted, outworked, or outfought by their Native counterparts.

“At the Rainbow’s End,” “Jan, the Unrepentant,” and “A Daughter of the Aurora” all suffer from weak endings. On the other hand, in “The Man with the Gash,” in which a miserly hostel keeper receives a visit from a scarred stranger, the ending is rather predictable but so utterly original that you enjoy it anyway.

Overall, The God of His Fathers is not as successful a collection of stories as London’s first book, The Son of the Wolf, but it still offers a taste of better things to come later in his career. All things considered, if you enjoy wilderness adventure then an average book by London is better than the best books of almost any other writer in the genre.

Stories in this collection:
The God of His Fathers
The Great Interrogation
Which Make Men Remember
The Man with the Gash
Jan, the Unrepentant
Grit of Women
Where the Trail Forks
A Daughter of the Aurora
At the Rainbow’s End
The Scorn of Women

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