Book reviews

I added White Fang by Jack London to my list of Classics Club books without any idea of what the story would be about. If I’d had to guess, I would have said it was a coming of age story about a boy and his dog, which turned out to be so far from the actual plot as to be laughable.

White Fang is the story of a ferocious wild wolfdog (half wolf, half dog) living in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The story began with two men returning a coffined corpse to civilisation using dog sleds, who are being tracked by a pack of starving wolves. Each night the dogs were being picked off one by one by the wolves, until the terrified men were themselves in mortal danger.

The story then moved to follow Kiche, a female dog who had been running with the wolves and was responsible for luring the sled dogs to their deaths. After the wolf pack’s famine was broken when they killed a moose, the pack broke apart and Kiche ran with two male wolves until the older wolf, One-Eye, killed his younger rival. In due course Kiche had a litter of wolfdog pups, of which White Fang was the only survivor. As a puppy White Fang explored his world, made his first kill for food and was learning how to protect himself from danger when he and Kiche stumbled into a camp of Native Americans.

Grey Beaver recognised Kiche as having formerly belonged to his dead brother and claimed her and White Fang for his own. White Fang wanted to return to the wild but Kiche settled in to camp life and eventually the two were separated.

White Fang’s life in the camp was hard as he was tormented by the other dogs and treated brutally by Grey Beaver, so he grew up to be a savage, angry animal who was used by his master as a fighting dog. Grey Beaver eventually sold White Fang to an even worse master, ‘Beauty’ Smith, who pitted White Fang in fights against other dogs, wolves and even a lynx.

White Fang was on the brink of losing his life in a fight against a bulldog when a young man happened across the dog fight and saved White Fang from death, calling out Beauty Smith and the crowd for their beastly behaviour. White Fang then became Weedon Scott’s dog, learning to trust and love him. Eventually White Fang left the Yukon to live in Weedon Scott’s family home in California where he learned to live peacefully with other dogs, animals and people.

Up until the young man happened across the dog fight, there was little morality in the story. White Fang’s world was harsh and only the strongest and most brutal animals survived. Animals who weren’t eating other animals were being eaten themselves. The author made it clear that the wolves and wolfdogs had no sense of right or wrong, and that particularly in the wild, their only purpose was to eat and survive.

White Fang recognised humans in the story as ‘Gods’ but even then he noted that the Gods’ powers varied, sometimes as a result of their race. He also recognised that there were ‘Laws’, but only because the Gods would hurt him if he didn’t obey these Laws.

As already mentioned, when I started to read White Fang I had expected a very different book and when I realised this was the animal’s own story, I expected White Fang to think and speak and moralise like a human would, but other than feeling certain emotions which were generally angry and unhappy, White Fang retained a wildness throughout his reasoning that was fascinating.

I was also surprised that although I found much of the human and animal behaviour to be abhorrent, from the cruelty shown to White Fang by Grey Beaver and the other dogs to the graphic descriptions of the dog fights, I never felt sickened or as if the events were being sensationalised for the reader’s titillation, instead I felt engaged by the story and enjoyed this unusual look at a world and environment which I know nothing about.

I did have major reservations about the plotline of Weedon Scott bringing a vicious wolfdog who often bit people and killed other animals into his home, and especially of him trusting White Fang with his own small children. I’ve been bitten by dogs twice, once in a public space by a stranger’s pit bull terrier, which are a banned dog breed in Australia and another time in a residential street by a part dog, part dingo which had escaped it’s owner’s yard. On both occasions I hadn’t even been aware of the dog’s presence until after I was bitten. To be brutally honest, if I had owned White Fang, I would put the animal down rather than have risk my child’s safety.

I struggled to find a cover picture for this book that suited the ferociousness of White Fang as most of the covers showed wolfdogs that looked as if they would be happy to be hugged when White Fang’s temperament was the exact opposite.

White Fang was book twenty six in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023. The Call of the Wild is on my list too and I will probably read this next.

Comments on: "White Fang by Jack London" (14)

  1. Rather you than me :/ I definitely will not read this book. I’m sure it must be a classic for a reason. I’m glad that you got some enjoyment out of it though.

  2. White Fang won’t be for everyone in this day and age, probably wasn’t to every reader’s taste when it was first written, either. I found the story and location to be intriguing and very different to my part of the world.

  3. Thank you for reading this Rose! I enjoyed your post but it’s not for me.

  4. I get the feeling I’ve taken one for the team by reading White Fang!

  5. Yep, not for me wither, though I enjoyed your review! This book was on our bookshelves when we were kids and I think I got to about chapter 2 before deciding nope! Maybe the guy didn’t like his kids… 😉

  6. ‘either’ not ‘wither’! Oops! 😊

  7. I’m surprised this was considered to be a children’s book! It was quite brutal.
    The introduction made London out to be a fairly self-indulgent character, so you might be right in saying he didn’t like children at all.

  8. It looks exactly like a real word when you use it in a sentence!

  9. just after reading your review Rose, I turned on the radio and White Fang was being serialised! I heard a fairly gory bit, but just as you describe it actually didn’t freak me out – odd. And yes, like FF we had this on our shelves as children too – very odd!!

  10. Well, that was a coincidence!
    On reflection I think the brutality of the book was less upsetting because of the animal’s detachment from the emotions that humans associate with violence. I keep thinking about this point and trying to work it out (which is my definition of a classic).
    Children were less sheltered in some ways and more in others when this was written, I suppose. Possibly the same now, but the events we shield them from have changed.

  11. Call of the Wild was my father’s favourite book as a child so I’ve always known about it. Like others have said, it never attracted me as a child myself but I recently read it as an adult. It was written before White Fang (which I haven’t read), and is a mirror of White Fang because the story opens with the dog as a much-loved pet and recounts what happens when he is stolen and taken to the Yukon. I can’t decide whether I enjoyed the book for its own sake or because of the connection to Dad but it remains with me vividly. I think I may read White Fang one day.

  12. I think you’re right, the animal is detached from human emotion, now we seem to turn everything to our own emotions. May be that’s also why they were considered ok for children?

  13. I’m glad you enjoyed The Call of the Wild, whatever the reason. The connection you make between your father and the book is lovely. I can imagine White Fang appealing enormously to boys, and think perhaps The Call of the Wild was aimed at male readers too. This didn’t occur to me when I was reading the book but it seems obvious now you’ve prompted me.

  14. The story was a reminder in some ways of how much more self-obsessed our times are.
    Sandra commented that The Call of the Wild had been her father’s favourite book as a child, which made me realise it and White Fang were probably written for men and boys, who were of course expected to be less emotional than women when the story was written.

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