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White Fang, by Jack London

31 December 2023

White Fang by Jack London

White Fang is the story of a wolf-dog: ¾ wolf, ¼ dog (of some large breed, unknown). It takes place sometime around the turn of the century, 1900ish in the “Northland Wild,” which I took to be far north of California, perhaps somewhere in the Yukon, Canada. I suspect this because in the end of the story, White Fang finds himself in Sierra Vista, Cali—not far from San Jose, just southeast of San Francisco. But the bulk of the book takes place in London’s so-called “Northern Wild.”

The craft elements of this book fascinated me. The story begins—and mind you, all of it is written in third person somewhat omniscient—from the perspective of two men hauling southward a body in a coffin. The men are paid transporters of the corpse, a man who was apparently quite rich and could afford to be brought south and buried with his family. But these men are the main characters at the start, which totally confused me because the book is called White Fang, and I’ve read London’s other book, Into the Wild and knew it was written from the dog’s perspective. So that was what I was expecting. But then, toward the end of that section of the book, London shifts perspective from the men with their sled dogs (whom the wolves are hunting and killing, one by one, as they move south) to the wolves—to one wolf, in particular: a she-wolf who is a formerly domesticated half-dog named Kiche. Still not White Fang.

All this shifting of perspectives from the sled crew to Kiche are indicators that this story, although it begins in medias res, does begin with backstory. This is White Fang’s story; it just begins well before White Fang is conceived. We don’t meet White Fang until Kiche births him, in Part II, Chapter 2, 25 pages into the book. So this is a mix of what Ben Percy and Stephen King suggest (don’t give backstory, it slows the plot) and what I’ve noted from most of the writers I’ve read from the 1800s (tons of backstory, who gives a shit about plot pace). The thing is that with London here, the backstory though perhaps unnecessary is not uninteresting. Its pace moves forward quickly even though we don’t know where it’s headed—but we suspect it’s headed to White Fang.

Then there’s the third person PoV that fascinated me. London’s perspective is somewhat omniscient, but not entirely. It shifts from the men of the sled crew to Kiche to One-Eye and eventually to White Fang. But each time it shifts, its omniscience shifts too; that omniscience permits a sort of fire ring of light around the protagonist of the moment. We can see just beyond their sphere of consciousness, but not all the time and not by far—this I enjoyed because it permits mystery. For example, when the PoV shifts from Kiche to White Fang after his birth, Kiche disappears for long periods of time to find food and we’re left to wonder, as White Fang does, where she’s gone and whether she will return. But at the same time, White Fang has his first encounter with native man, and we learn much about their culture that White Fang could never surmised known on his own.

The parts I loved most about this omniscience is the way London conjectures about White Fang’s cognition. It’s a sort of third-person metacognition that must be presumed because nobody knows how a dog’s brain works. Here’s a great example:

Had the cub thought in man-fashion, he might have epitomised life as a voracious appetite and the world as a place wherein ranged a multitude of appetites, pursuing and being pursued, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, all in blindness and confusion, with violence and disorder, a chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by change, merciless, planless, endless.

But the cub did not think in man-fashion. He did not look at things with wide vision. He was single-purposed, and entertained but one thought or desire at a time. Besides the law of meat, there were a myriad other and lesser laws for him to learn and obey. The world was filled with surprise. The stir of the life that was in him, the play of his muscles, was an unending happiness. To run down meat was to experience thrills and elations. His rages and battles were pleasures. Terror itself, and the mystery of the unknown, led to his living. (42)

This type of metacognitive speculation happens throughout the novel, and I found it delightful to entertain the possibilities of how a dog’s brain functions. Super creative. Incredibly intuitive on London’s part. He clearly knew dogs (and wolves) well; even his short story “To Build a Fire” is evidence of this.

One thing I noticed about this book that made me uncomfortable was the racism that’s baked in. I can be super forgiving of such things when a piece is taken in its cultural and historical context, which one must do with London. Still, the way that White Fang processed the difference between white men and the native people with which he’d formerly associated took me aback. Here it is:

It was at Fort Yukon that White Fang saw his first white men. As compared with the Indians he had known, they were to him another race of beings, a race of superior gods. They impressed him as possessing superior power, and it is on power that godhead rests. White Fang did not reason it out, did not in his mind make the sharp generalisation that the white gods were more powerful. It was a feeling, nothing more, and yet none the less potent. As, in his puppyhood, the looming bulks of the tepees, man-reared, had affected him as manifestations of power, so was he affected now by the houses and the huge fort all of massive logs. Here was power. Those white gods were strong. They possessed greater mastery over matter than the gods he had known, most powerful among which was Grey Beaver. And yet Grey Beaver was as a child-god among these white-skinned ones. (73)

I’ll not lie to you; I still don’t know how to feel about this. It would be interesting to hear how others feel about it. I have many thoughts about it that I’ll not insert here. Instead, I’ll let those thoughts stew. Perhaps it’s a piece of writing for another day.

Okay so no spoilers here. I won’t talk about the ending except to say that it was sufficiently satisfying. Overall, the book was thoroughly enjoyable and well-written. It was refreshing to be dropped into the grey matter of a canine, for once. London has never disappointed me.

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