A Wolf-Dog’s Story

white-fangWhite Fang is another book I bought from the charity book sale shelf in Phillip’s office. I’d never read anything by Jack London, but I’ve been meaning to for a long time.

White Fang, by Jack London, was originally published in 1906.

It’s the 1890s, and two men, named Bill and Henry, are transporting a dead man, in a coffin, on a dog sled across the wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory, to Fort McGurry. Every night, the dogs huddle by the campfire, in fear. At first, Henry and Bill aren’t sure why their dogs are behaving so strangely. Then they realize that a pack of hungry wolves are eating the dogs, one by one.

Henry and Bill accidentally overturn the sled on a bad stretch of trail. The coffin ends up in a tree.

The wolves eat Bill.

Henry is afraid to fall asleep, knowing that once he does, the wolves will attack and eat him. Finally, he can stay awake no longer, and he gives up. At that moment of surrender, men from Fort McGurry arrive to find out where Lord Alfred is. He’s in a tree, Henry tells them, in a coffin.

Then the book switches to the point of view of the pack of starving wolves. They are fighting amongst themselves. They split up into smaller packs.

The point of view then switches to an unnamed she-wolf and a male wolf named One Eye. They produce a litter of cubs. The lack of food kills all but one of the cubs. The hunt for food kills One Eye.

The point of view then switches to the one surviving cub as he grows up and learns his way in the world. The book stays with the cub’s point of view for the rest of the story.

The cub and his mother encounter four Indians. The cub tries to fight back and bites one of the Indians on the hand. The Indians laugh at him and name him White Fang. The cub, meanwhile, is puzzled by his mother’s cowering attitude toward these humans.

The Indians recognize the she-wolf (White Fang’s mother) as a domesticated wolf-dog hybrid named Kiche, who ran away from the Indian tribe a year earlier to join a pack of wolves.

(Bill and Henry had thought that one of the wolves was acting more like a pet dog than a wild wolf.)

White Fang isn’t a book about a coffin in a tree, and it’s not about Fort McGurry. It’s about White Fang’s adventures.

White Fang is brought into the Indian village. He is beaten by his human master, Gray Beaver. He is bullied by a dog named Lip-lip. His mother is sold to another village to pay a debt.

White Fang grows up vicious, feared and unloved. He becomes solitary. And yet, he earns respect (and maybe just a little love) from Gray Beaver and his family.

In a moment of exploited weakness, Gray Beaver is tricked into selling White Fang to a cruel white man named Beauty Smith. White Fang had learned that humans are gods, to be obeyed always, and he learned, through observation, that white gods are superior gods to the Indian gods. Yet this white god, his new master, Beauty Smith, beats him more savagely than Gray Beaver ever did.

Beauty Smith turns White Fang into a professional fighting animal, and White Fang takes to his new role easily. He becomes an undefeated killer. The men who watch the dog fights laugh at White Fang, and poke him with sticks.

The back of this paperback asks the question: “Will White Fang ever know the kindness of a gentle master or will he die a fierce deadly killer?” It’s a good question. How can there be such a thing as a gentle master in the harsh and brutal northern wilderness? And, if White Fang were to find such a master, how could he ever overcome a lifetime of cruelty?

I have another question: What’s the deal with the coffin in the tree? What did it have to do with anything? Was it just a sub-plot that went nowhere? Or was it the continuation of some earlier book I’m unaware of?

White Fang is a fine adventure story of the rugged frontier. It’s a macho story, full of tough manly men. There are few female characters, and when they do appear, they’re background characters. I can imagine young boys in the 1900s eating up this tale of wild Indians and wilder dogs.

The book was, to me, slow at times. It took me a very long time to get through it, and it’s only about 250 pages long. But I did enjoy it, overall. The final chapter, especially, gripped me with a sense that the story could easily end any of several ways.

  • A book with a title that’s a character’s name
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