Friday, October 19, 2012

A Daughter of the Snows by Jack London

A false start on the road to greatness
Jack London achieved great fame with his adventure tales of the Klondike Gold Rush, most notably the extremely popular novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. His very first novel, however, has since faded into obscurity. A Daughter of the Snows, originally published in 1902, tells the story of Frona Welse, a white woman born in the Yukon Territory, who, after being educated in the United States and Europe, returns to the mining town of Dawson to reunite with her father. London deserves to be commended for creating the character of Frona, a strong-willed, intelligent, and independent heroine that was years ahead of her time. Nevertheless, he may have overdone it, as Frona comes across as a bit of an unrealistic superwoman. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, she also excels at everything she attempts, whether mushing a team of dogs across the frozen tundra, acting the part of Nora in Ibsen’s Ghosts, or, when the occasion arises, even practicing law.

A Daughter of the Snows is not a typical Jack London adventure story. It’s more a comedy of manners, like a Jane Austen novel set in the frozen North. Shortly after her arrival in Dawson, Frona attracts two opposing suitors, and the predictable plot revolves around which man shall win her hand. The setting within the Yukon is almost irrelevant. Most of the narrative takes place in the parlors and saloons of Dawson, though some wilderness adventure does occur in the last several chapters. When Frona and friends are not reciting poetry to one another or agonizing over whether or not it is proper to associate with a dance hall girl, they are busily engaged in dialogues in which London showcases his peculiar preoccupation with race. In the opening sentence of chapter eight, Frona asks, “And why should I not be proud of my race?” Thus begins a series of conversations about how the Anglo-Saxon is destined to conquer the world. Words like “race”, “breed”, and “blood” are tossed about so casually between Frona and her peers, at times their evening salons sound like the committee meetings of a eugenics society.

London’s writing is a bit clumsy throughout. There is often a general lack of clarity in simple matters like who’s speaking to whom in a conversation, or how people and things are arranged in a given space. It’s as if London had a vivid picture of the scene in his imagination, but was unable to adequately translate that scene to the reader. The book is also unnecessarily lengthy. Several of the thirty chapters are merely conversational digressions that do nothing to move the plot forward and could easily have been eliminated. At times it feels the book was padded simply because London was being paid by the word.

Enthusiastic fans of London’s writing will find some entertainment value here. It’s interesting to see the nascent seeds from which sprang such an illustrious career. Many of the themes and plot devices introduced in this book would be developed by London more thoroughly and successfully in later, better works. For the casual reader of London, however, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been covered to far better effect in the short stories found in outstanding collections like The Son of the Wolf, The God of His Fathers, Children of the Frost, The Faith of Men, or Lost Face. In fact, of all the works from London’s Klondike period, A Daughter of the Snows is the least worthy of reading. It’s not a bad novel for a beginner, certainly not a horrible failure, but with an author as prolific as London, who wrote masterpieces like The Call of the Wild, The Iron Heel, or Martin Eden, why waste your time reading one of his inferior works?

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