Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lost Face by Jack London

Much more than just “To Build a Fire”
Lost Face is a collection of seven short stories by Jack London, all of which take place in Alaska or the Yukon Territory around the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. It is most notable for being the collection which contains “To Build a Fire,” the classic story of a man trudging along the Yukon Trail, alone but for his dog, who finds himself struggling for survival against the 75-below-zero cold. It is London’s most famous and widely read piece of writing, about as perfect as a short story can be, and sure to be read in junior high school English classes for centuries to come.

In addition to this renowned masterpiece, Lost Face is loaded with unexpected gems. I had never heard of the other six stories in this collection, and I was greatly surprised at how good they are. By the time Lost Face was published in 1910, London had already published five collections of Klondike tales, ranging from the excellent (The Faith of Men) to the OK (Love of Life). In the latter book, London showed signs of exhausting the subject matter and running out of ideas, but here in Lost Face he comes up with seven very solid, original, exciting tales.

The title story, “Lost Face,” recalls the odyssey of a Polish freedom fighter who is imprisoned by the Russians, then escapes from the mines of Siberia and ends up in Alaska. He finds himself faced with torture and death at the hands of a Native American tribe, and desperately tries to come up with a way out of his predicament. “That Spot” is a comical tale in which the narrator recalls a dog he owned during his prospecting days in the Yukon; a magnificent, powerful, keenly intelligent beast who absolutely refused to perform the slightest bit of useful labor. In “Flush of Gold,” two travelers on the sled dog trail stop at a cabin on Surprise Lake, where dwells a beautiful, mysterious woman who pines for a former lover. As one of the men relates the woman’s history to his companion, the reader discovers the bizarre love story that darkens her past. “The Wit of Porportuk” tells of an Alaskan Indian chief, famous for his generosity and extravagance, who runs up big debts to a miserly money lender. When the time comes to collect the debt, the lender, Porportuk, sees it as an opportunity to claim the chief’s beautiful daughter El-Soo for his mate. The girl, however, being very clever and well educated, comes up with a scheme to avoid becoming the greedy old man’s property. Neither party’s plans prove entirely successful, however, and just when you think you know where the story’s going, it turns in a shocking and unexpected direction.

Comparing the stories of Lost Face to London’s Klondike tales of a decade earlier, one really gets a sense of how much he progressed as a writer. These seven tales are rendered in smooth and beautiful prose, skillfully plotted, and remarkably vivid in their depiction of time and place. Reading Lost Face transports you to the bygone world of the exotic North. Through London’s eyes, it’s a wild and unpredictable place where the powerful beauty of nature is ever present, and invigorating adventure is commonplace.

Stories in this collection
Lost Face 
To Build a Fire 
That Spot 
Flush of Gold 
The Passing of Marcus O’Brien 
The Wit of Porportuk 

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