Monday, February 27, 2012

The Son of the Wolf by Jack London

An auspicious debut
This was Jack London’s first book, a collection of short stories first published in 1900. These nine stories all take place during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Unusual for a London collection, the tales are all loosely connected by a cast of recurring characters—the inhabitants of Forty Mile, a town in the Yukon Territory. The men of Forty Mile, including Malemute Kid, Sitka Charley, Stanley Prince, and Scruff McKenzie, each speak in their own exaggerated accent and all share a colorful local slang. Their adventures tend to fall into two categories: the town stories and the trail stories. The town stories take place mostly within Forty Mile, and are generally lighter and more humorous in tone. They tend to be less successful, because in many cases the humor hasn’t held up well over the past century. The trail stories take place mostly in the wilderness, on the sled-dog trail, and are usually quite bleak and brutal, detailing the ways in which men, when removed from the comforts of civilization and fighting for their lives against nature and each other, revert to their primitive animalistic natures. These stark tales of the North are what London does best, and they’re still as exciting as they were 100 years ago. 

In “The White Silence,” a freak accident on the trail forces the Malemute Kid to make life-or-death decisions regarding an injured friend and his Indian bride. “In a Far Country” tells the tale of two lazy shirkers who are abandoned by their party and forced to face the harsh consequences of their slothful behavior. “An Odyssey of the North,” the book’s crowning achievement, tells the epic tale of a mysterious Indian and his obsessive quest across half the frozen world. 

As his career went on, London’s skills as a writer developed more and more. Compared to his later work, the execution of these early stories seems a little clumsy, yet there is a satisfying freshness to London’s unbridled enthusiasm for adventure. With the exception of some brief references to the Darwinian themes which would later be fully developed in The Call of the Wild, you won't find any philosophy or politics in this collection. The Son of the Wolf is just pure entertainment and straight-up escapism for the armchair prospector.

Stories in this collection
The White Silence
The Son of the Wolf
The Men of Forty Mile
In a Far Country
To the Man on the Trail
The Priestly Prerogative
The Wisdom of the Trail
The Wife of a King
An Odyssey of the North

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