Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: White Fang

When you read a fair amount of books, you will discover a handful of authors who are beyond good. Reading their stories isn't like reading at all, but instead like opening up a Christmas present. There aren't many and this feeling can't be set in academic stone. This is a very personal experience, and one of the best feelings I know of.

Some of those authors for me are: Jack London, Peter S. Beagle, George R. R. Martin, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Harris. Sure, not all of their books will be stunning, but when I sit down with one of their books, I've got a smile on my face and I consider time with them, time well spent.

Jack London is one of those authors that normally come up once or twice in English class, and despite school forcing the book down kids throats, still manage to be greatly enjoyable.

White Fang is adventure from the start.

“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land.”

A small dog sled team is moving through a cold, desolate northern landscape, and they are being trailed by starving wolves. Things end badly for the team over the following days, and the brutal opening scenes set the stage for this novel of savage brutality and what use, if any, are of love and kindness is in a world that lives off of life.

“It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.”

For those who have read Call of the Wild---White Fang is an interesting counterpoint to that novel. This wolf, White Fang, is of the wild from the start, and the novel is about leaving the wild, and living under human masters, or “Gods” as dogs see humans in the novel.

Brutality and oppression of the weak serve as the main source of tension throughout the narrative. There are few hopeful scenes in the first three/fourths of the book. But that is the joy of reading Jack London. The rules of the game for our characters are unforgiving.

The most powerful scenes take place near the end in a climactic battle between White Fang and another canine foe. White Fang ends up in the hands of an abusive weakling---and here, the story snaps into unending, driving conflict, and London dismantles abuse with concise clarity:

“Beauty Smith enjoyed the task. He delighted in it. He gloated over his victim, and his eyes flamed dully, as he sung the whip and club and listened White Fang's cries of pain and to his helpless bellows and snarls. For Beauty Smith was cruel in the way that cowards are cruel. Cringing and sniveling himself before the blows or angry speech of a man, he revenged himself, in turn, upon creatures weaker than he. All life likes power, and Beauty Smith was no exception. Denied the expression of power amongst his own kind, he fell back upon the lesser creatures and there vindicated the life that was in him.”

For me as a reader, this kind of direct honesty in scene and character are rare things indeed, and London shows it the way it is, without malice or glee.

The novel continues on, and there are ruminations on the importance of love and affection in a master (though, a lesser brutality and fear are still required to keep order...) Things conclude on a somewhat heroic, if unnecessary, note. But when a book captures my heart, I can forgive much.

And this book truly did.

"White Fang" is adventure, one well worth the time. "Call of the Wild" and "The Sea-Wolf"are also great reads---the latter being a phenomenal sea adventure.


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