Friday, October 4, 2013

The Valley of the Moon by Jack London

In search of the American Dream
The Valley of the Moon, a novel by Jack London, was first published in 1913. Saxon Brown, a petite and pretty laundry worker, meets Billy Roberts, a former prizefighter turned teamster, and they immediately fall in love. All looks rosy for a while, until labor unrest rocks San Francisco, and the Teamsters Union goes on strike. The couple falls on hard times, and Billy becomes involved in the violence between strikers and scabs. Saxon resolves that the two should leave the city, and search for a better life as farmers in the country. So they set off tramping to search for their dream homestead, which they facetiously dub the “Valley of the Moon”.

This novel seems to have been London’s attempt at writing a literary epic of the laboring class like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Though it never quite rises to the same level of literary quality or importance as those works, The Valley of the Moon does have some valuable things to say about the social condition of the working class in the early 20th century. The name of the heroine, Saxon, should give some indication that London’s controversial racial views are also at work here. The main characters in the book constantly express great pride in their Anglo-Saxon heritage and the achievements of their ancestors. They consider the American Dream to be their birthright, by extension of the Manifest Destiny that drove their pioneer parents across the plains to the West Coast. Yet the reality in which they live is far from a dream. One character describes himself and his peers as “the white folks that lost out.” They feel that they have been robbed by the “Dagoes,” “Chinks,” “Japs,” and other ethnic groups that have taken all the land and jobs. Yet admiration is also expressed for the hard work, intelligence, and shrewdness of those same ethnic groups. The Portuguese, for example, are praised as excellent farmers, while white farmers are denounced as either lazy and uneducated or guilty of having raped the land for quick profit. These views are based partly on London’s own prejudices, but they are also valid expressions of the mindset of the white working class of his day. When one character makes a fiery diatribe, another character usually responds as the voice of reason. In this manner, the issues and concerns of the time are debated in a pretty even-handed manner—by London standards, anyway.

In terms of quality, the plot of the novel could be graphed as a bell curve. It peaks in the middle. The best part of the story is the labor trouble, as discussed in the preceding paragraph. The rest of the book is guilty of the sin of long-windedness. Towards the beginning of the book, there are a ridiculous three or four chapters devoted to the topic of how the foundation of a successful marriage is a well-stocked lingerie drawer. In the latter half, London wanders off into familiar digressions. The travelers meet up with a group of wealthy vagabond poets, and everyone bonds over philosophical discussion and feats of strength. Another of the book’s glaring faults is that the heroes have got to be the two luckiest people on Planet Earth, since they encounter almost no adversity in their journey. They are hard workers, granted, but good fortune seems to fall into their lap, and everyone they meet is friendly and helpful. Through this rosy outlook London pictures a sort of Green Acres fantasy camp.

I would not recommend this book to anyone who’s not already a fan of Jack London, unless you’re just really interested in the social history of northern California. For habitual readers who are accustomed to his familiar themes and obsessions, however, The Valley of the Moon is a pretty good read. It’s not quite the epic masterpiece he intended, but a solid example of his socially conscious novels.
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