The Call of the Wild

When I was little, I had an abridged version of The Call of the Wild which I read repeatedly. It had beautiful illustrations and I felt like I came to know all the many different canine characters well. Along with an old battered book on Balto it helped to perpetuate a love of dogs which I think I shared by most children. However, something about the word “abridged” on the front of the cover made me assume that the original text was long, dense, and unapproachable. I considered for many years picking up the full book, but always shied away, stopped in part by my childhood impressions of difficulty.

A couple weeks ago, I visited my parents for the first time since before the pandemic started to see my dad after he had shoulder surgery. As I lay on the pull-out bed in the basement, I looked at the random assortment of books on one of the shelves. Among them was The Call of the Wild – the full-length version. I figured now was as good a time as any and picked it up for some bedtime reading. I was somewhat surprised to find that it was actually a light and quick adventure story and I finished it in only 3 sittings.

The events and characters came back to me as I read; I remembered Buck’s quarrel with vicious Spitz to be lead dog, Curly’s death, the three city slickers who mistreat the dog team, Buck pulling a sled out of the frozen ground for the love of his human, and Buck eventually leaving behind his life with humans to join a wolf pack in the Yukon. I didn’t really remember how much the book had felt like a lecture on primitivism, the fragility of civilization, and on nature vs nurture. At every chapter, Buck sheds some other aspect of his life in “civilization”, learns to survive and lead a pack, has increasing ancestral memories of living as a wolf with a primitive man, and eventually returns to the wild after the death of his beloved owner. Most of Buck’s actions seem very exaggerated or implausible – including the idea of being drawn to an ancestral memory. This time around, I found the book a little too moralizing.

On top of everything else, the ending of the book is uncomfortably racist. While Buck is out roaming in the woods, his owner is killed by a group of Native Americans called who are portrayed as cruel and stupid. Buck wreaks violence upon them, and they fear the “ghost dog” forever after. The “Yeehats” are not a real tribe, but a collection of harmful stereotypes. Using such a stereotype of brutal and superstitious Native Americans as a shoehorned plot device is both lazy writing and a damaging perpetuation of racist ideas. As a result, I could neither appreciate the ending nor can I heartily recommend the book.

Although I still have fond memories of reading my illustrated copy of The Call of the Wild, I will not likely return to reading this book again.