In Banned, we review books on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged young adult novels, banned books. The intended audience for all books is “young adult”, typically defined to include ages 12-18. We review them because challenging ideas are the heart of democracy and diversity, because even harmful perspectives should be discussed so that they may be challenged with understanding, and because we believe that reading can make us all more capable of compassion. These reviews are not endorsements, and whether you read the book addressed herein is your decision.
“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again.” – Jack London, The Call of the Wild
For me, The Call of the Wild has been one of those books that I go back and reread every couple of years. Often referred to as a beautiful prose poem, it brings back the feeling of fires on a cold night, looming mountains, and a trip through the wilderness. Jack London brings an old and enchanting feel to what could have been a rather basic story. Through imagery and insights about the world he brings the story of Buck to life! Many people misclassify this book as a children’s book because the story is told from the perspective of a dog, but Jack London brings much heavier themes, and that is where this book excels. London deals with the American past and the effects of society through the experiences of Buck and his return to the wild past of canines.
Buck is a domesticated dog living comfortably when the Klondike Gold Rush breaks out. He is torn away from the life he knew and sent to be a sled dog in the Yukon, no simple task. Buck quickly becomes adept at his new job and life in the harsh environment of the Yukon. To put it in London’s words, “He must master or be mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed.”
Jack London lived through the Klondike Gold Rush, so he is able to give a lot of details about the experience, but it isn’t all campfires and gold. He paints a great picture of what life was like for people back then. Buck works under a series of masters throughout the book and each one reveals more about the dangerous life people traversing the Yukon lived. His first masters, Perrault and François, leave their team in order to follow a new assignment outside of the Yukon. Then the dogs are taken in by a man, his wife, and his brother who are looking to start a new life but have no clue what they are doing. They push the dogs to the brink and after tragedy befalls the team, Buck is left alone. This flippancy of handing off of dogs and the treatment they receive highlights the cruelty the dogs were met with. Dogs were cheap and animal abuse like what Buck experiences was commonplace. London does a great job of giving life to the plight of the dogs and making the reader get invested in Buck’s struggle to protect himself and his team.
In the end, this book is about finding your authentic self and fighting against cultural norms and the things that hold you back. Buck goes from a dog living in comfort to a successful sled dog before finally becoming the leader of a wolf pack. His journey is led by a mysterious “call of the wild”, something I have often thought to be Buck’s desire to be free and follow his true nature. This conflict between wanting to follow an inner calling and either being unable to follow or fearing what will be lost is the essential theme of the book. It is an incredibly powerful message about being true to yourself and fighting back when things are not right. It is a story that you will not soon forget.