The Call of the Wild (Junior Classics for Young Readers)
Author: Jack London
Illustrator: Michael Fisher (Cover Art by Dom D'Andrea)
Adapted By: Kathryn R Knight
Original Story Published in 1903
This Edition Published in 2013
Jack London's famous novel tells the story of Buck, a dog who lived like a king on an estate before being kidnapped and put to work in the cold reaches of the Arctic. He is starved and beaten, as the man in the red sweater (who has an outsize effect on Buck's life despite existing in it for a short time) breaks him and teaches him the "law of the club"; namely, that whoever holds the club holds the power. From here, he is placed on a sled team, and quarrels with the leader of that team, an ill-tempered dog named Spitz. All through his work and his turbulent life, Buck starts to feel a kind of calling, a kind of yearning for the wild life of his ancestors. Whether or not he can answer that call is the driving question of the book.
The Call of the Wild is almost the exact inverse of White Fang, Jack London's other adventure novel that me and my kids have already read. In that book, a wild animal eventually learns to become a family pet; in this one, a family pet learns to be a wild animal. Both books share their author's love for dogs and the Klondike, and both books display the love a dog can have for a human.
Like the other books we've read in the Junior Classics for Young Readers series, this edition of The Call of the Wild is filled with illustrations; in most places there is a black-and-white illustration opposite each page of text, which means that even though the book is 182 pages long it reads much more quickly than its length would suggest. Consequently, it is possible to read multiple chapters in a single night. This was B's book that he got for Easter, and he begged me to read the last several chapters in a single sitting, which we did with no real issues because the book kept the kids' interest rather well.
Given that the The Call of the Wild is so similar to White Fang, it should be no surprise that the same read-aloud tips that we used for that book work just as well here. There are more humans in this book, and so there's more opportunity for humorous voices, which could be big hit and provide some much-needed levity given the content warnings below. The best voice we did for this book was definitely John Thornton, a major character who appears about midway through the adventure. His voice was a deep, rich "mountain man" timbre, befitting his status as a seasoned outdoorsman.
Like White Fang, The Call of the Wild is violent, possibly more violent than you would want your younger or more sensitive children to experience. Dog fights happen with some frequency, including an important one that results in a dog's death and isn't easy to skip. Buck gets beaten regularly in the early chapters, particularly by the aforementioned man in the read sweater.
The middle part of the book features what is a first for our group: the entire supporting cast save Buck gets wiped out while making an ill-advised decision to cross a thawing frozen lake (ill-advised because John Thornton specifically told the idiot "tenderfeet" to not do that and they did it anyway). All the dogs Buck has known to that point which hadn't already been killed perish in this disaster (as well as the three humans in the group), and the only reason Buck doesn't is because he flat-out refused to step onto the ice.
But the most violent portion of the book occurs near the end, it is a MAJOR SPOILER so be warned. John Thornton, the man who loved Buck, who nursed him back to health after the tenderfeet nearly worked him to death, dies in an Indian attack while prospecting for gold. Given that Thornton had been Buck's only real friend in the Klondike to that point, this loss haunts the poor dog, causing him to go on a revenge killing spree and wiping out many of the natives that attacked and killed Thornton's party. Again, as with White Fang, nothing too explicit is described, but it is very clear from the text that John Thornton was killed for his gold and that Buck kills the natives in revenge for Thornton's death. Depending on how you feel about a dog taking revenge, you will need to keep this scene in mind when deciding whether or not to read this book, as skipping it is not possible due to its importance to the overall story.
In short, this is a book for older, more mature kids. But if your kiddos can handle the violence, it's another wonderful adventure from the writing of Jack London.
I asked B, after Buck fights and mortally wounds team leader Spitz, who would become the next leader of the sled dog team and he answered with this gem:
"Buck will [become the new leader]. Because that's how movies work."
"I didn't like this one. He wasn't a wild dog. Why did he stay a wild dog? Why didn't he go home to his family?"
"I loved the sled pulling. Buck is such a strong dog! And the camping guy [John Thornton] loved him. But then he [Thornton] died. That was so sad. But then he [Buck] found a wolf pack to live with and that was better, but he was still sad. It's a sad book, and then a happy book, and then a sad book again."
The Call of the Wild is a harrowing adventure through the cold of the Klondike with a huge, strong dog named Buck. It's violent, potentially too violent for young listeners, and it ends with a particularly disturbing sequence of events. But Jack London's love for dogs and the wild is on full display here, and even though this edition of the novel is condensed, it comes through in spades when reading this book aloud. If you think your kids are mature enough to handle the darker moments, The Call of the Wild is a thrill-ride you can all enjoy together.
Recommended Age: 6 and up