12 July 2006

Jack London's "Call of the Wild" is a book I remember; I read it near the same time was read The Red Badge of Courage and all the Marguerite Henry books I could find. It was one of the books available to me, so I read it and enjoyed it. Reading it again, I can see why some people might think it inappropriate for middle-school children, but it still seems like a reasonable choice to me.

"Call of the Wild" is a good choice, actually. London has a strong, brisk prose style, tells an entertaining story, and has a protagonist that almost everyone can relate to equally: a dog. London's prose provides an excellent example for older children, in that it simply and clearly conveys information. It is always, when not used in dialogue, "proper," yet it is not obtusely complex--and it is compelling. Part of the work's compellingness is, however, due to the adventures Buck, our dognapped hero, encounters on his way toward realizing his true nature. The story is straight-forward and well paced; the book is short; the hero wins in the end. What more does a young reader want?

I understand that some people might think that impressionable young people ought not read anything which shows theft, cruelty to animals, or gambling going unpunished. And they may be right. I don't think, on the other hand, that a bit of historical accuracy in a novel will much influence the attitudes of today's media-savvy youth. If the crimes of "Call of the Wild" are going to corrupt our children, they will have to take a number.

I agree that the physical exploitation and abuse of animals rampant in this story is reprehensible, but it happened. Trying to hide that is foolish; that is simply a historical period. Better, is it not, to let children be appalled by it themselves, so they can see how awful it was and thus learn not to do such things.

The greed which pervades "Call of the Wild", on the other hand, is harder to justify. Not only does the book begin with Buck's being stolen into slavery for easy money, but it closes with him establishing territory around a cache of lost gold. Allowing this to go without comment reinforces the robber-barronistic tendencies the book portrays and lets children think of these attitudes as correct, since they are still being exposed, rather than realizing that they are what led to Buck's whole problem.

Still, people all, eventually, encounter greed. That it underpins a story is really not a good reason for not reading that story. Again, the book offers a closed environment for encountering the subject, and an opportunity to discuss it in a specific context. I see these problems, consequently, as good, as items counting in the book's favor for young readers.


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