The panorama of humanity's unfailing ability to screw everything up is seen through the eyes of a barely domesticated wolf in Jack London's epic White Fang. Combining his love of the wilderness, his insight into human nature, and his borderline racism against Native Americans, London tells the story of a wolf pup born in the wild and run through the mother of all ringers (and the ringer of all mothers).
He's nice enough to divide the book into five neat parts, each one corresponding to a phase of White Fang's life. We go from his mother's fun and games hunting humans for food, to his birth, to a series of human masters both kind and cruel, and finally to a nice comfy California estate where he can get some R&R after getting pretty thoroughly pummeled by life.
Like a lot of great works, White Fang stems from real-life experience. London himself went to the Yukon during the gold rush, when the story is set. He knew the territory and he loved the wild country that he found there. What better way to express in than with a historical adventure story featuring a wolf as the main character? Not only does it help the book stand out from the (ahem) pack, but it makes for a rousing tale so timeless that it could be used to market Ethan Hawke as a Disney hero nearly a hundred years later.
Beyond being just an exciting novel about life in the Yukon, London's White Fang tackles all that big important stuff that great works of literature are supposed to: the great challenges of life, how harsh and scary Mother Nature can be, the ways humanity either does better than nature or much, much worse. Sometimes, it takes an animal to show us what animals we can be. Or how much better we can be than animals.
Maybe that's why White Fang has remained one of the most enduring classics of nature lovin' lit. Originally published serially in Outing magazine, White Fang has stuck around, been studied by eighth-graders everywhere, and adapted into a whole slew of B (and C and D) movies. It's got all the goods—cinematic descriptions, lovable furry characters, and just enough blood and gore to keep us all engrossed. So dive in and heed The Call of the Wild.
Quick. When we say nature, what's the first thing that pops into your head?
Here's what popped into ours:
Okay, okay, we can do better:
• leafy greens
• babbling brooks
• mountain vistas
• deep blue oceans
• national parks
Yep, that all sounds about right. And we think London would agree—to a point. White Fang is chock full of beautiful descriptions that depict nature as something gorgeous and pristine. But he also never fails to remind us that Nature—with a capital N—is a completely heartless place where cute and fluffy animals die horrible, grisly deaths.
So humanity must be the better alternative right? Well, if you're London, not so much. Sure, we might think we're above all this kill-or-be-killed stuff, but ol' Jack doesn't quite see it that way. To him, humans can be some of the nastiest, cruelest parts of Nature. We're just as lethal as any creature in the wilds—maybe more so.
White Fang delivers a sobering reminder for our Internet-y age: Nature hasn't changed, and neither has our relationship to it. We think we've outrun it, but it's just lying in wait to pounce. The boss who likes to lord it over his underlings isn't all that different from a wolf making sure everyone in the pack knows their place. Businesses talk about "kill or be killed" and don't show a lot of mercy when a competitor runs into trouble.
We may deny it, but we're still creatures of nature. And we'll need to remember that if we want to rise above our animal instincts.