Published in 1903, Call of the Wild is Jack London's most popular book. It is sometimes seen as a book for young adults, but is a dark trip into human nature and a species that can be noble as well as incredibly cruel and insensitive. The protagonist, Buck, is a dog that is kidnapped and placed into servitude as a sled dog during the 19th century Klondike Gold Rush. It is Bucks loyalty and instinct to return to his owners that forms the plot of the book -- and the assumptions the reader is able to make about the inhumanity of humans and the very real loyalty and humanity Buck shows.
Hatchet is a 1987, three-time Newbery Honor book for young adults dealing with survival, and is the first of four novels using the same characters. The gist of the plot follows 13-year-old Brian Robeson who is stranded alone in the Canadian wilderness after a crash landing from a bush plane. Brian barely survives, but learns to make fire; scavenge food, and then, through trial and error, crafts more advanced weapons like a bow, arrows, and spear, and is then able to bring down larger game. Thus, the novel is really more about the way the human spirit survives in all forms of adversity, as well as the way someone creative and in-tune with nature can overcome odds.
There is a great deal of juxtaposition in both novels -- man vs. wild; pet vs. companion; nature vs. humanity; human spirit vs. adversity; and above all, what actually constitutes humanity in a world outside of urban, modern civilization. Nature takes on a personality, but this is a dangerous thing for both authors, because if we truly analyze it, we must say that nature is not anti-human, or anti-individual; while at the same time far from benign and open-hearted. It almost seems that humans are not wise enough to be in tune with the rhythms of nature, or to understand the way nature works. Then, when the realization comes, it changes everything and rather than fighting against nature, the individual accepts that there must be a balance in nature, that it only delays positive actualization for humans to actively fight nature.
In Call of the Wild, the contrast of Buck's life as a domesticated pet with his kidnapping and the events that occurred as Buck tries to find his way home to his beloved owners. Buck lived in almost palatial luxury, the only life he knew, "at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley… and over this great demesne Buck ruled. Here he was born, and here he had lived the four years of his life" (4). As master of his domain, Buck had a view of humans that never included anything but play, wonderful hunting trips, and warm fires. "The whole realm was his… [and] he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog" (4,6). Indeed, Buck saw humans as creatures to protect, to love, to obey, and to provide friendship and loyalty -- it was all he ever knew, and all his canine mind could possibly expect in life.
Buck, of course, "did not read the newspapers, and he did not know that Manual, one of the gardener's helpers, was an undesirable acquaintance" (7). Manual, it seems was a gambler and into trouble with his betting debt. To pay this debt, Manual sells Buck to a trader -- it seems that the hunt for gold in Alaska increased the market for sledding dogs. Buck had no idea when the rope was slipped onto his neck that his life would change, "never in all his life had he been so vilely treated, and never in his life had he been so angry" (9), but the rope held, and Buck was no longer master of any domain.
Buck was starved, "beaten… but not broken" (19), yet somehow he knew he could not stand up to the man with a club. The club was a revelation to him "It was the introduction to the reign of primitive law" (19) and changed the way he would forever view the world. What he could not understand was how these humans could be so different than the ones he knew before. Despite the strangeness of it all, it appeared that other men came and went, passing something to the man with the club, and dogs would leave with the men. Buck had the sense his new adventure would be different, and he was right, "Perrault and Francois were fair men, calm and impartial in administering justice, and too wise in the way of dogs to be fooled by dogs" (22). Yet, life was "confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril" (25), Buck could never let his guard down. -- "They were savages, all of them, and knew no law but the law of club and fang" (25).
Day after day, the realities of the wild confronted Buck. The other sled dogs, for the most part, were nothing but wolves, wild and brutish. Nature was unforgiving, and clearly the dogs were not cherished for their companionship, but only their ability to pull the sled. Buck was also unprepared for the madness that occasionally overcame sled dogs and even his former pal Dolly succumbed to "the axe crashing down upon mad Dolly's head" (56). Despite his instinct for home, despite his loyalty, Buck was never to see the sunny porch of California again. Instead, in juxtaposition, Buck became part of a wolf pack, one of which held a brother with whom he had known during his tribulation times, "And Buck ran with them, side by side with the wild brother, yelping as he ran" (185).
In Hatchet, we find the harshness of nature early in the way the plane, a supposed technological wonder, is nothing but a plaything in the hands of nature:
There was a great wrenching as the wings caught the pines at the side of the clearing and broke back, ripping back just outside the main braces. Dust and dirt blew off the floor into his face so hard he thought there must have been some kind of explosion. He was momentarily blinded and slammed forward in the seat, smashing his head on the wheel. Then a wild crashing sound, ripping of metal, and the plane rolled to the right and blew through the trees, out over the water and down, down to slam into the lake, skip once on water as hard as concrete, water that tore the windshield out and shattered the side windows, water that drove him back into the seat. Somebody was screaming, screaming as the plane drove down into the water. Someone screamed tight animal screams of fear and pain and he did not know that it was his sound, that he roared against the water that took him and the plane still deeper, down into the water. He saw nothing but sensed blue, cold blue-green, and he raked at the seatbelt catch, tore his nails loose on one hand. He ripped at it until it released and somehow - the water trying to kill him, to end him - somehow he pulled himself out of the shattered front window and clawed up into the blue, felt something hold him back, felt his windbreaker tear and he was free. Tearing free. Ripping free (28).
Note the images of ripping and wrenching as the man-made objects are simply of no use when set upon by nature. And certainly, from Brian's point-of-view, the "clouds of insects, hick swarming hordes that flocked to his body, made a living coat on his exposed skin" (36) seemed to attack him, to personally. Yet contrast this with the way Brian begins to see the forest world as a home, a refuge even, with "from his height he could see not just the lake but across part of the forest, a green carpet, and it was full of life" (107).
There are a number of these examples that are typical of man vs. wild, particularly in the way Brian at first perceives the animals, then comes to see them as part of a larger family. For instance, when Brian meets a Porcupine, "it terrified him. The smell was one of rot, some musty rot that made him think only of graves with cobwebs and dust and old death…. Then he heard the slithering…. And he kicked out as hard as he could….. And his leg was instantly torn with pain" (79). Yet after being around the natural world for a bit, Brian finds that if he respects nature -- if he watches the creatures in nature and how they react and interact with each other, he is able to not only view the interrelationships in a different light, but also come to terms with working with nature -- in cooperation with the wild, and therefore becomes more "at one" and at peace with his…