Friday, November 8, 2013

Jerry of the Islands by Jack London

Not for all dog lovers
Early in his literary career, Jack London became famous with the publication of two novels centered around dogs, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Later, after the primary focus of his writing had shifted from the Klondike Gold Rush to the islands of the South Pacific, he would try to duplicate that success with two more dog novels, Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry, both published in 1917. Jerry of the Islands takes place in the Solomon Islands of Melanesia, where Jerry, an Irish terrier, was born on a plantation. His owner, a white man who overseas a work force of native islanders, gives Jerry to a friend of his, Captain Van Horn, of the boat named the Arangi. Van Horn and his crew go on a “blackbirding” expedition, hopping from island to island, returning indentured laborers who have served their time and hoping to pick up new labor in the process. It’s a dangerous business, as the natives will gladly, any chance they get, kill a white man, steal his goods, and eat his flesh.

In The Call of the Wild and White Fang, it made sense to have canine protagonists because London was making a statement about evolution and the nature of wildness. In this book, however, he’s merely telling an adventure story in which the main character just happens to be a dog. Being a dog, Jerry doesn’t really do a whole lot in the book except take what comes to him. Much of the action of the story revolves around the succession of humans who come to own him as fate transfers him from the hands of one master to another. The only readers who are really going to enjoy this book are dog lovers who are fascinated by every twitch of ear and wag of tail. As in his previous dog adventures, London does an admirable job of channeling the canine thought process. What are the chances, however, that one of those dog-loving readers will also have an interest in the slave plantations of the South Pacific? (Technically, they were indentured servants, but they’re treated as slaves.) Should these two spheres of interest intersect, one may find that this is not a badly written adventure story. There are a few genuinely exciting scenes. However, Jerry of the Islands is certainly nowhere near London’s best, and fans of the author will find that it often reads like self-plagiarism. When he’s not rehashing plot ideas from his novel Adventure or his short story collection South Sea Tales, he’s ripping off the ending from White Fang.

There’s quite a bit of racism in this book, though it’s the sort of racism you might find in an old Tarzan film. The black islanders are all savage cannibals and head collectors. London shows no sympathy for the plight of the blacks under colonialism and relishes the opportunity to portray them as brutal villains. The paradox with London is that he was one of the first white writers to really depict people of other races as true human beings with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations, yet he also never fails to reiterate his view that these other races are inferior to whites in every way. In fact, Jerry himself is a racist, favoring white masters over black, and even a classist with the ability to distinguish a gentleman from common white riff raff. The n-word is bandied about quite a bit, as it would have been in this time and place. Frequent readers of classic fiction, being accustomed to such antiquated views on race, probably won’t find this novel terribly offensive. They may, however, find it a bit silly, frequently dull, and just an overall bad idea. The dog-and-master romance passages often read like they came out of a children’s book, only to be followed by a brutal killing or racial epithet. This incongruity makes Jerry of the Islands a textbook example of what happens when you bring together two genres that were perhaps best left asunder.

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