Monday, May 6, 2013
The Turtles of Tasman by Jack London
This is one of Jack London’s lesser known short story collections. Despite the exotic title, none of the stories take place in Tasmania or the South Seas. Five of the stories take place in northern California, two in the Klondike, and one in an undisclosed location during the paleolithic era. London is primarily famous as an author of wilderness adventure tales and of stories imbued with socialist political ideas. While there are a couple examples of the former, the latter genre is curiously absent from this volume. No politics at all. As an overall body of work, this collection is weak by London’s standards, but a few gems shine out from among the rest.
In the opening story, “By the Turtles of Tasman,” Frederic Travers, a responsible man of high standing, gets a visit from his dying brother Tom, a globetrotting vagabond. It’s a study in contrast between the two men, who each embody opposing aspects of London’s character: the successful workaholic vs. the wandering adventurer. The writing is very mature and insightful, indicative of some of the more accomplished work of London’s later career.
Another noteworthy story is “Told in the Drooling Ward,” a first-person narrative as told by a feeble-minded inmate of a mental institution. London does an admirable job with the narrator’s voice and treats the character with sensitivity and respect.
A story I had never heard of that really blew me away was “Finis.” A starving man, stranded along the Yukon River in winter, waits to prey upon an unsuspecting traveler in order to save himself. It is as bleak and visceral as London’s famous story “To Build a Fire.” Suspenseful and skillfully told, it’s an excellent story that deserves to be better known.
The other five stories in the collection are “The Eternity of Forms,” “The Prodigal Father,” “The Hobo and the Fairy,” “The First Poet,” and “The End of the Story.” These range in quality from the disappointing to the forgettable. Like many of London’s collections, you have to sift through a few pans of dirt to find the gold nuggets.
Stories in this collection:
By the Turtles of Tasman
The Eternity of Forms
Told in the Drooling Ward
The Hobo and the Fairy
The Prodigal Father
The First Poet
The End of the Story
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