‘The Call of the Wild’ follows the adventures of Buck, a St Bernard/Collie cross. Buck is stolen from his Californian home, and sold to fuel the need for sled dogs in the Yukon as part of the 1880s gold rush. Buck goes from being a relatively pampered pet to being a possession, to be used and treated as a commodity, beaten close to death, worked even closer. London was a socialist and had first hard experience of the privations of the Yukon and the brutal treatment of animals, but I couldn’t avoid thinking that the story is more than just about dogs. 

Aren’t there clear parallels between the way Buck is broken and abused, and the treatment of slaves in America? I’m not suggesting the novel is a metaphor or parable – it could just be a story “about dogs” (I often check the Amazon reviews on books I am planning to write about, to get a feeling for the overall response, and see if there’s anything significant I have missed. One reviewer for ‘The Call of the Wild’ claims to have been disgusted upon finding out that the novel was “about dogs”, which I have to say I found wonderfully dumb) – but London’s political background suggests that his sympathy for the literal underdog extended beyond animals.

Buck is trafficked together with other captured and bought slaves, sorry dogs, to the Yukon, where he is savagely beaten until the fight goes out of him. He learns his new role chained to the straps of a sled. He is given bare rations, and slowly finds a place in the pecking order amongst the team. Once his job is done he is casually discarded, bought at a discount because he is no longer needed, and once again placed in chains. He finally finds an owner who treats him with love, but this relationship ends brutally, and Buck surrenders to the primal instincts he has been fighting for some time, and gives in to the ‘call of the wild’, becoming leader of a wolf pack.

 

This is not a story for animal lovers, or at least not those with any trace of sentimentality. Dogs die throughout the book, often killed by Buck himself, but also in a wide variety of other manners. Dogs are portrayed as fierce animals, following instincts derived from their days as man’s earliest companion, when the world was much darker and more dangerous. The novel of course anthropomorphises Buck, giving him human feelings and thoughts, and an understanding of the world far beyond what any pet would ever actually have, but he remains an animal, killing when he has to, and following his instincts – well, almost all his instincts – London understandably doesn’t goes down that road!

At just over 100 pages long this is a short adventure story that can be read in an afternoon or less. The Yukon is captured realistically through Buck’s eyes, and there is a wide cast of characters – I particularly enjoyed the stupid family who ignore the advice of experienced trappers and disappear through a hole in the ice, as we knew they would. The novel is carried forward at a frenetic pace, and the exercise of seeing the world through an animal’s eyes is well done. But at the end of the day this is just an adventure story, and I suspect London wrote books other than ‘Call’ more appropriate for adult readers. Whether I will seek them out is another matter.

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