Monday, December 2, 2013

Michael, Brother of Jerry by Jack London

The pick of the litter
Michael, Brother of Jerry is the sequel to Jack London’s novel Jerry of the Islands. Both books were published in 1917, and each tells the story of one of two canine siblings. Jerry of the Islands is a mediocre adventure story with a lot of uncomfortable racial content. Michael, Brother of Jerry has a much better story than its predecessor, and is a far more satisfying book. Unfortunately, if you haven’t already read Jerry’s book, you’re probably going to be lost here, or at least rendered clueless by the many references to Jerry and his story. Perhaps even more unfortunate, however, are those who have read Jerry’s book, for on the final page of that novel London gives away the ending of Michael’s book, so all along while reading Michael’s adventures you know exactly where he’s going to end up.

Michael, Brother of Jerry begins exactly where Jerry of the Islands leaves off. Jerry and Michael are Irish terriers, born and raised on a plantation in the Solomon Islands. Michael serves as an “[n-word]-chaser” on a schooner used for recruiting native labor. On the very first page of his novel, however, he is stolen from his owner by a steward on another ship. This is to the benefit of the story, as it means we don’t have to sit through another book about brutal South Seas plantations populated by murderous black servants. Instead, Jerry becomes the willing companion of Dag Daughtry, a lovable, alcoholic seaman who requires little more out of life than six quarts of beer each day. For much of the book, Daughtry is the real protagonist of the novel, rather than Jerry. The story follows the steward’s escapades from ship to ship and port to port while Jerry faithfully tags along for the ride.

In a foreword to the novel, London explains that the purpose of this book is to expose the cruel abuse suffered by animals in the world of trained animal entertainment. This subject doesn’t really enter the novel until roughly its final third. London’s depiction of the business of animal taming is most likely a mixture of investigative journalism and sensational exaggeration. Everyone in that line of work is depicted as a complete sadist, to such an extent that it’s difficult to fathom why they would engage in the active destruction of the very animals they’ve invested in. Nevertheless, at least the book tries to make a point, which is one thing that was missing from Jerry’s book. London is often at his best when he’s being preachy, and his enthusiastic devotion to the fight against cruelty to animals serves to enliven the book considerably.

Regrettably, the final chapter of Michael, Brother of Jerry is yet another shameful retread of the lame final chapter of White Fang. It seems London ends all his dog books the same way, except for The Call of the Wild. Although London’s four dog novels obviously share some common subject matter, the stories of Jerry and Michael are nowhere in the same league with The Call of the Wild and White Fang. In the latter two novels, London uses dogs to examine deep philosophical issues related to the theory of evolution, the relationship between man and nature, and the very meaning of wildness. On the other hand, the primary purpose of the two Irish terriers from the South Pacific is merely to provide a couple of entertaining stories. To this end, Jerry isn’t very successful, but Michael puts on a pretty good show. In fact, Michael, Brother of Jerry would be a much better novel were it not so intimately connected with its inferior predecessor.

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