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July 23, 2015

Let's Get Classic Post 5 - What THE CALL OF THE WILD Taught Me About First Love


At Teenreads, we love to review the latest and greatest YA books to hit the shelves. However, we recognize that older books --- sometimes much older books --- have plenty of value, too. In this blog series, Teen Board member Alison S. is writing about some of her favorites and how they remain relevant today. Read below for her fifth post on THE CALL OF THE WILD.  You can also read her earlier posts on FRANKENSTEIN, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE HITCHKIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

For such a short novel (even the large-print edition clocks in at under 200 pages), Jack London’s THE CALL OF THE WILD offers readers a surprisingly ample amount of gore. Though this turn-of-the-century classic doesn’t quite rival the Saw franchise in the violence department, London isn’t shy about depicting rival sled dogs biting, clawing and (literally) tearing each other apart. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “surely, even the most hormonal of teenage girls couldn’t relate this bloodbath to her dating life?”

Well, I’m about to prove you wrong.

In case you haven’t read it, THE CALL OF THE WILD is about transformation. More specifically, protagonist Buck’s transformation from a family pet to a hardened sled dog, back to a sort-of pet, and (finally!) to a savage alpha wolf.

When Buck’s stolen from the comfort of his first owner’s California estate and plunged headfirst into the cutthroat world of Arctic sled dogs, it doesn’t take long for him to swap his “Southland” pretensions of morality for the literal dog-eat-dog code of the frozen Yukon. Under his first masters, super hardcore Canadian mailmen Francois and Perrault, Buck rediscovers his primal instincts, particularly his fierce craving for dominance over his pack. This lust for world— I mean pack— domination culminates in a death match between Buck and selfish alpha dog Spitz. Spoiler alert: one of them dies, and it isn’t the book’s protagonist.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Buck’s relationship with Francois and Perrault. There is, however, mutual respect built on mutual competence. Buck works hard, and the die-hard Canadian mailmen know their way around the Arctic tundra. Buck’s expertise as a lead dog helps Francois and Perrault break some mail-delivery record (apparently that’s sort of a big deal if your a turn-of-the-century Canadian mailman), and the record-breaking mail carriers give the dogs food and shelter. To put it in modern terms, Buck’s relationship with Francois and Perrault is “strictly professional”; the sled dogs provide brute labor in exchange for food --- sentimentality never enters the equation.

Though Buck’s next two owners share the postal workers’ pragmatism, what they don’t share is the mailmen’s knowledge of Arctic survival. From starving the dogs to traversing half-melted ice floes, Buck’s later masters display all of Francois’ unsentimentality and none of his common sense.

But when gold miner John Thornton rescues Buck from the bumbling, perilous idiocy of tourists Hal and Mercedes, things finally start looking up for the half-starved sled dog. While the remainder of his team perishes at the incompetent hands of Hal and his trophy wife, Buck recovers his strength in the loving arms of John Thornton. For a few blissful chapters, you almost forget you’re in a fictional world where dogs eat each other alive.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but then again, this novel is entitled “The Call of the Wild”, so you won’t be too surprised to learn that, um, circumstances (that’s vague enough, right?) separate Buck from his final owner. But even as Buck trades his domestic life for a wild one, he pays a yearly visit to the last place he saw John Thornton.

If wild, end-of-the-novel Buck were to meet John Thornton for the first time, he’d probably view the good-natured miner as a soft, domesticated nuisance at best and potential prey at worst. But even though Buck’s bestiality trumps his Southland gentility, his compassion and his morals, no amount of primal instinct can erase his love for Thornton. (Just a quick side note, “My Heart Will Go On” came on my Pandora as I was writing this section. Serendipity, right?)

So what does this have to do with dating? I’m glad you asked.

In my almost-18 years on this planet, I’ve had one meaningful romantic relationship, which began wonderfully and ended less so, not that you asked. Anyhow, whenever I catch myself thinking about this failed romance, I wonder why I even care. If I were to meet this person for the first time tomorrow, I’d judge him a self-unactualized perfectionist, spend a moment or two pitying him, and never think of him again.

But when I first met this person, I too was a self-unactualized perfectionist, so I guess it worked (as much as any romance that ends in me mailing back his stuff can be said to have “worked”). And no amount of maturation, self-actualization or comfort gummy bears can erase the memory of this metaphorical John Thornton. As Buck learns during his recovery at John’s cabin, it’s one thing to value a dog (or person) because of what they give you, whether that be brute labor or a prom date. But valuing someone for their mere existence is a whole other animal. The first time you’re valued for simply existing is something no amount of transformation or self-discovery can blot from your memory.

I’m not sure if this means I should resign myself to annual brood-sessions, or if I should acknowledge that I’m not a dog, metaphorical John Thornton did just as much to ruin my life as to save it, and move on. But whatever it is I’m supposed to feel, I couldn't help moping over THE CALL OF THE WILD's second-to-last paragraph: “In the summers there is one visitor, however, to the [Buck] muses for a time, howling once, long and mournfully, ere he departs.”

Alison S. is a Teen Board member.