Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Children of the Frost by Jack London

London hits his stride
This is Jack London’s third collection of short stories, first published in 1902. As with his two prior collections, all of the stories are set in northwestern Canada or Alaska at the time of the Klondike gold rush. The common thread uniting these ten stories is that they all prominently feature Native American or Inuit people. London’s treatment of Native American characters is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, he was one of the first authors to treat Indians as human beings with real thoughts and emotions, even giving them starring roles in some of his best stories. On the other hand, he often inserts a paragraph or two extolling the superiority of the white race, the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon man to triumph over the Indian, the preferability of a white woman’s charms over those of an Indian maiden, and so on. London considered the white conquest of the Americas to be inevitable, yet he still sympathized with the plight of the Natives and lamented the loss of their culture. Because of the touchy subject of Native/White conflict, often his best Indian stories are those that don’t feature white characters at all. Thankfully, this collection features several of such stories, and in general the questionable ideas on race are kept to a minimum. For the most part these are very well-crafted and exciting wilderness adventure stories which begin to show the Darwinian-based philosophical beliefs that London famously presented in The Call of the Wild. To reinforce his obsession with “the survival of the fittest” and “the law of tooth and claw,” London uses the Indians as a symbol of a people and culture less removed than the whites from the natural order of things, and thus less removed from the brutal impartiality of life and death inherent in the wild.

“The Law of Life” is one of London’s absolute masterpieces. As an Indian tribe packs up their camp to move to winter hunting grounds, one feeble elder is left behind to die. In his last moments, he meditates on life and death with neither fear nor bitterness, for such is the law of life. “Keesh, Son of Keesh” tells the tale of a young Indian male ostracized by his own kind for adopting the non-violent ways of the white man’s Christianity. London vividly depicts the clash of cultures within one man’s soul, with surprisingly brutal results. In “Nam-Bok the Unveracious,” a more light-hearted tale of culture clash, a long lost young Indian male returns to his village on the Bering Sea. As he regales his kinsmen with tales of the white man’s world, they respond with incredulity and suspicion. In “The League of Old Men” London tackles the subject of white conquest by offering the point of view of an Indian, on trial for murdering white men, who justifies his crimes as a defense of his endangered native culture.

There really are no bad stories in this book, just a couple below average efforts that are far outnumbered by the good and the great. Children of the Frost is a strong collection of stories, a treat for lovers of London, and a good introduction for those who have never read his work.

Stories in this collection:
In the Forests of the North
The Law of Life
Nam-Bok the Unveracious
The Master of Mystery
The Sunlanders
The Sickness of Lone Chief
Keesh, Son of Keesh
The Death of Ligoun
Li-Wan, the Fair
The League of Old Men

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