Book Summary: Call of the Wild by Jack London

Book Summary: Call of the Wild by Jack London

Type of work: Adventure novel

Setting: Northland (Alaska); the gold rush of the 1890s

Principal characters
Buck, a large, intelligent and well-bred dog
Spitz, a cruel lead sled dog
John Thornton, Buck’s Northland master

Call of the Wild Book Summary

Buck, a huge four-year-old Scottish Shepherd-Saint Bernard cross-breed, lived a life of ease at Judge Miller’s Santa Clara Valley estate. As the judge’s loyal companion, working with his sons, and guarding his grandchildren, Buck ruled over all things – humans included. Combining his mother’s intelligence with the size and strength of his father, Buck became the undisputed leader of all the dogs on the estate.

At this time, gold had been found in Alaska, and thousands of men were rushing to the Northland. They wanted dogs, dogs like Buck. One night, Manuel, the estate’s gardener, who felt he was not earning enough to support both his family and his gambling habits, took Buck for a walk to the railroad station.

There, money was exchanged, a rope was placed around Buck’s neck, and his life in the civilized world had come to an end. For two days and two nights Buck traveled northward in a baggage carrier. Caged, with no food or water, his placid disposition changed to that of a raging fiend.

In Seattle, Buck was met by a man in a red sweater, holding a club. As Buck came charging out of the opened crate the man cruelly beat him into submission. Buck had learned his first lesson: he stood no chance against a man with a club. Buck, along with other dogs, was purchased by Francois and Perrault, dispatchers for the Canadian government, and transported by ship to Alaska. Buck soon came to respect his French-Canadian masters.

But life among the dogs was savage; no law existed but that of fang and force. The first day, Buck looked on as one of his shipmates, downed in a fight, was savagely killed by the anxious pack of dogs. Thus he learned that in the event of a fight, he must always stay on his feet. Spitz, the sly-eyed and powerful lead dog of the sled team, took pleasure in these disputes.

Dogs being slashed to ribbons seemed to amuse Spitz, making Buck hate him from the beginning. Buck came to know his teammates: which dogs were approachable, and which to leave alone. He learned the necessary skills of a sled dog, which included digging under the snow at night for warmth, surviving on far less food than he was used to, stealing food from other dogs, and the knack for pulling a load.

His body became hardened. And, over time, those instincts once possessed by his ancient ancestors sprang to life within him. The domesticated generations’ softness fell from Buck, and the wilderness wolf emerged. As time passed, Buck coveted the position of lead dog. He found that his size and cunning allowed him to come between Spitz and the shirkers, those that the cruel dog would have otherwise punished.

With Buck protecting them, the pack lost its fear of Spitz, and discipline broke down. The dogs no longer worked as a team. Francois and Perrault became furious with the lack of order and the loss of time spent separating skirmishing animals. One night Buck saw his chance, and a death-fight began. Spitz was a practiced fighter who felt a bitter rage toward Buck, but as the battle continued, Spitz slowly lost ground.

With a final rush, Buck knocked his enemy to the snow and the eager pack moved in for the kill. Though his masters beat him severely, Buck refused to be harnessed until he was given the lead position. He willingly accepted the demands of supremacy, and where judgment, quick-thinking and action were required, showed himself superior to all. With Buck in the lead, the team picked up and became as one, moving smoothly over the snow on a record run from Dawson to Skaguay. Buck’s name soon became legendary.

In Skaguay, Francois and Perrault received orders to relinquish the team to a Scotch half-breed, and after only three days rest the team was back in the traces and headed for Dawson. It was a strenuous trip. The once-proud, confident dogs arrived short of weight, in poor condition and needing at least ten days to recuperate. Nonetheless, only two days later they were again out on the trail headed back to Skaguay.

A heavier sled combined with bad weather made the going slow. At night, Buck would lie near the fire and dream of Judge Miller’s big house, the great fight with Spitz, and his hunter ancestors. A wildness, long held in check, began to surface anew; he seemed to hear the far-away cries of a wolf.

The team arrived at Skaguay 30 days later, the dogs in wretched condition. In this sad, exhausted state, the team was sold to Hal, Charles and Mercedes. These two men and one woman were recent arrivals from the States, intent on getting rich in the Northland. As the team struck out, Buck could sense that the humans were undependable and knew nothing of wilderness travel. They journeyed at half speed, as if on an “extended social camping trip,” and the food was quickly depleted. Dogs gradually died of starvation. Midway to Dawson only five of fourteen remained.

What’s more, the humans argued continually amongst themselves and Mercedes refused to walk, making the few dogs drag her extra 120-pound weight. The valiant animals often stumbled under the load; only the sting of the whip could bring them to their feet to strain for another mile. … Through it all, Buck staggered along at the head of the team as in a nightmare.

He pulled when he could; when he could no longer pull, he fell down and remained down till blows from whip or club drove him to his feet again. All the stiffness had gone out of his beautiful furry coat. The hair hung down, limp and draggled, or matted with dried blood where Hal’s club had bruised him. His muscles had wasted away…each rib and every bone in his frame were outlined cleanly through the loose hide that was wrinkled in folds of emptiness. It was heartbreaking, only Buck’s heart was unbreakable.

At last the team crept into John Thornton’s camp at the mouth of White River. It was here that Buck refused to get up. He was dying, and sensed disaster close at hand. Despite the blows from Hal, Buck would not move. Suddenly, John Thornton jumped in and, after a brief scuffle, stopped Hal’s brutality.

He cut Buck from the traces and ordered the group to leave. Together, Buck and John watched as the team and sled crawled onto the ice-covered river. A quarter of a mile out the ice gave way, and the entire assembly disappeared into the frigid water.

Thornton had saved Buck’s life. After traveling 3,000 miles, a rest was what Buck needed. As John waited for his partners by the White River, little by little Buck won back his strength. He romped through his convalescence and into a new existence. Not only respect, but a feeling of love grew between dog and master. One time, John was swept away by a river and Buck saved him, risking his own life.

On another occasion, Buck won a bet of $1,600 dollars for John and his partners by breaking a sled carrying 1,000 pounds of flour out of the ice and pulling it a given distance. Offered great sums of money for his legendary sled dog, John only replied, “No sir. You can go to hell, sir. …” The group was finally able to pay off old debts and trek east into mining country. John and his friends were experienced trailmen. Months rolled by.

Spring came, and they found a broad valley where the gold showed like yellow butter across the bottom of the washing pan. Here, John and his partners settled down and began piling up bags of gold. In these warm, leisurely months, Buck’s dreams turned more vivid. He began to feel ever more strongly the call of the wild. For days he would leave the camp, but his love for John always brought him back. But, over time, the blood-longing became stronger than ever.

He was a killer, a thing that preyed … unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived.

As the fall of the year arrived, Buck came across a herd of moose. The chief bull was well over six feet tall and as formidable a quarry as even Buck could desire. For five days he stalked the moose until he pulled the exhausted animal down. For another day and night Buck rested and feasted upon his kill; then he turned back to John and the camp. Nearing camp, Buck paused, sensing danger.

Arriving on the outskirts, he was stunned to find that the Yeehats had attacked the site; men and animals lay dead and the tribe was performing a victory dance. The Yeehats heard a strange noise, and suddenly a white monster raged amongst them, a “fiend incarnate,” killing and destroying with a crazed fury and scattering the remaining braves. Afterward, Buck returned to camp and mourned his loss.

John Thornton was dead – and his passing left inside of Buck a huge, aching void. The last vestige of civilization stripped from him, Buck was now a wild animal. He joined with his feral brothers in the wolf pack and became their leader. Even now, the Yeehats often speak of an evil Ghost-dog that inhabits the land, running at the head of the pack, killing any man it comes across.

They tell the story of how the phantom selected a certain valley for an abiding place. All still bypass that valley. Buck occasionally returns, alone, to the gold-speckled river, where he reflects on times past, howls long and mournfully, then steals back into the forest shadows.

Call of the Wild Reviews

Jack London led a life crammed with violence and adventure, both of which were transmitted into his writing. He had virtually no childhood, starting work at age ten. At 15 he became a hobo; at 16, an oyster pirate and longshoreman. Joining the Alaskan gold rush at age 19, London hiked across the United States and Canada to the Klondike. He found no gold, but later used some of his Northland experiences to draft The Call of the Wild.

In Buck, London endows all of the cunning and savagery that he feels lurks not only in animals, but in human beings as well. Buck’s transformation into a ferocious animal is London’s attempt to argue his “survival of the fittest” philosophy; the potential primitive beast he feels lies within each individual.

However, London’s great love for animals and nature inspired him to also write of the loyalty, affection, and excitement experienced by Buck. This adventuresome, emotion-packed novel seems to capture all of these qualities in a powerful way.

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