My antique copy (see Old Books) read for the Classic Children’s Book Reading Challenge.

I opened this book with the excitement of reading an old friend.  I know I originally read it when I was about 12 or 14.  I would not recommend it to anyone under 14 now, and definitely not to anyone with the slightest tendency towards cruelty or bullying.  On this reading I was alternately horrified by the beatings meted out to White Fang and other animals (and their justification), and discomforted by the discourse Jack London creates about the intentions, understandings and intelligences of the three-parts wolf named White Fang.

This is the story of White Fang and how he came to accept the life of an Indian camp over freedom in the wilds of Alaska and the Yukon.  It tells how that life was taken away from him, and how, through trickery of white man to indian, he was turned into a ferocious fighting animal, used as a gambling medium.  And it tells how he was rescued from that life and eventually rehabilitated.

I know when I first read this book, life, our culture, was different.  Citizen science and social participation were in their infancy, life was full of strict rules of behaviour and it was difficult to imagine anything outside a very humdrum life. The 1960s started the change in all that.  So reading Jack London now is a very different experience from reading him in the sixties.  My 21st century sensibilities recoil at the ill-treatment of animals, even in the harsh world of the Alaskan tundra forest.  I see so many reports of ill-treatment of animals now, that I fear whatever literature exists to support such actions should not be widely mentioned.  Bullying appears to be rife, and this book is full of bullying – of animals.  So much contemporary Middle Grade literature seems to deal with bullying from the perspective of the bullied standing up and overcoming the effects.  What White Fang seems to do is glorify it again.  Or, if not glorify it, to place it as a natural order of things, since Jack London writes interminably about the law of gods and men, and how animals must take their place in that natural law.  I remember doing a course in Environmental Ethics and thinking of how the approach of man to his environment changes according to the fashion at the time, utilisation, mastery, stewardship, harmony, sustainable development.  This is back in the mastery era.

Yes, the book finishes with White Fang being freed from cruelty and rehabilitated through kindness and care from liberal-minded but tough travellers.  I skipped through the part where he went to California, as I seem to remember I always did in the past.  The key events during that time are well-told, and in some ways, White Fang’s rehabilitation is a blueprint for others who seek to retrain ill-treated animals.  It ends on a somewhat maudlin note.

It is a superbly written book, but I nearly put it down soon after the halfway mark.  I had forgotten the sheer brutality of it.  In some ways I can’t believe I have kept this book with me all this time.  I certainly haven’t read it for years.  I doubt whether I ever will again.

I don’t recommend you read this book.  If you want a good MG wolf story read Nashoga by Rebecca Weinstein.

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London
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