Thornton's command cracked out like a pistol shot. Buck threw himself forward, tightening the traces with a jarring lunge. His whole body was gathered compactly together in the tremendous effort, the muscles writhing and knotting like live things under the silky fur. His great chest was low to the ground, his head forward and down, while his feet were flying like mad, the claws scarring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled swayed and trembled, half-started forward. One of his feet slipped, and one man groaned aloud. The sled lurched ahead in what appeared a rapid succession of jerks, though it never really came to a dead stop again... half an inch ... an inch... two inches... The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gained momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment they had ceased to breathe. Thornton was running behind, encouraging Buck with short, cheery words. The distance had been measured off, and as he neared the pile of firewood which marked the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow and grow, which burst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted at command. Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson. Hats and mittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.... Buck seized Thornton's hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back and forth. As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.
But we were never the kind to let a little indiscretion stop us. "Whoo-Hoo! Buck did real good, right?!" cried Katrianna, relinquishing her grip on the dining table's edge & jumping from her chair to race about the living room in a fury of exhilaration. While pushing the table 3 feet back to the original position from which Katrianna had propelled it while listening to this last scene (her moving response to rising action), I had to agree. "Yep, Buck was fantastic! And Jack London's pretty amazing, too, isn't he?"
"Well," declared Mikaela, from where she stolidly sat, "he's no Louisa May Alcott!" But at least she was in the room when she said it.
Knowing that the girls wouldn't have the heart to embark upon manly man Jack London's writings on their own, for the first time in a very long time I was reading aloud to the kids (and to Chris). Just a few pages or a chapter at a time, usually when we were finishing up with lunch or dinner. In the last few days I'd even found the book waiting on the table for me, placed there by Katrianna, instead of the usual preceding groans from both girls.
Indeed, there had been progress since page 1 when Mikaela literally ran from the room. That was OK, she didn't have to listen, I told her, fully accepting of her literary discernment and autonomy. I read just loudly enough for her to hear from the hallway, yet softly enough that she didn't catch on it was intentional. Worked! She had to strain mightily to catch each word and, as soon as we stopped, would reappear so the rest of us might patiently endure her long-winded explanations of how superior Alcott's Eight Cousins is in every way. Finally, she saved herself the trip, sometimes even forgetting to grimace, and excused her presence by citing a desire to leisurely enjoy dessert... before summarily assessing London his just desserts. (Eh, her bite is worse than her bark?)
We were answering London's Call of the Wild for two reasons: 1) to expose the girls to a recognized classic in a "boy book" genre that I knew they'd otherwise try to Pass the Buck on, and 2) because we were then in California, not far from Jack London State Historic Park. That's right, I was plotting for an imminent visit to Wolf House -- cuz, ya know, The Buck Stops There.
And Jack's Ranch really was a Beaut! A mix of oaks, redwoods, meadows & vineyards, with pretty views all around. There were gardens growing the practical & experimental plants he cultivated, such as Luther Burbank's "spineless cactus," which never completely lost its spines, a thorny non-development for the evolving gentleman farmer (and his hungry cattle).... And thick groves of imported Australian eucalyptus saplings that he planned on harvesting to sell as pier pilings or hardwood lumber, an unforeseen technicality being that their wood was deemed "too soft" (poor JL, always barking up the wrong tree... actually, 81,000 of them... turned out to be a shady business at best... he couldn't hardly stand it). But he did manage to reap record-setting oat hay crops from the previously over farmed acreage, plus personally design palatial pigpens that enabled one man to feed 200 swine simultaneously, a feat that would understandably inflate any male ego. Hmm, he found success sowing his wild oats & going hog wild - guess those accomplishments speak for themselves...
In the House of Happy Walls, built by his "mate woman" (aka, second wife) after London's death & now a museum, we saw many of his papers & letters, photographs, boots and a grand piano roarin' with vintage '20s tunes thanks to a genuinely genial volunteer (no, his name wasn't Charles, but he was a ton of fun, plus had an easy speaking style, was ready to Lindy an ear & didn't make no flapper about our rather Raggedy foxtrot). Throughout the mansion were numerous souvenirs that he & Charmian had acquired on their South Seas sailing adventure, an around-the-world trip for which he'd allocated 7 years but ended after only 27 months due to health issues, a disappointment which made him sea-sick. (He'd always adored the ocean, even in his earliest days as a reputed "Prince of the Oyster Pirates" who, under fear of incarceration, suddenly morphed into a prodigal California State Fish Patrol deputy.) In the dining room, beside a long, narrow table with pine benches & chair seating, were the white china dishes that London acquired secondhand in Samoa, after learning that they had belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson during his stint on the islands. Artifacts were abundant, including statues displayed at nearly every turnon the wide staircases, featuring a recurring motif of the couple's entrusting to well-endowedments (?). Charmian's bedroom & bathroom also revealed a procleavity for noteworthy busts, such as those of Venus de Milo & Nefertiti.
After that, we were anxious to get some fresh (or perhaps less fresh) air & began a half mile hike to see the ruins of London's 15,000 square foot Wolf House. Moss-covered walls and deteriorating bricks are all that remain of his dream, creating an atmosphere very much like that at Tintern Abbey. Dampness, steeped in the towering Redwood trees, imbues a natural mist & mystique pervading the foundation of the gutted 4-story, 26-room, 9-fireplace structure with its once indoor, but now open-air, rainwater-harvesting swimming pool. Nearby, his gravesite, marked by a lichen-sprouting boulder & surrounded by a gray weathered picket fence, holds his & Charmian's ashes. Before leaving, M&K whispered their Secret Club password to them both, as they had to the spirits of Eugene O'Neill & Robert Louis Stevenson, two more authors with northern California connections who shared such an honor.
We walked back through the woods and past the London-made lake where he liked to swim & canoe with his many invited guests, that is when he wasn't too busy playing pranks on them. And then on to the cottage where he lived and wrote during his eleven years at Beauty Ranch. He couldn't afford to fulfill his promise to rebuild Wolf House after the fire (hard to believe, but he'd made just 750 bucks for Buck's tale spin), so he added a study annex on the groundskeeper's cottage where he'd first started out at Glen Ellen.
There, his sleeping porch was the most intriguing place of all, for it was where he spent his nights after staying up late with the company he kept (Charmian had her own bedroom) and where he woke early to complete his "profitable chore" writing allotment for the day.
Strung across the small, sun-drenched space was a thin wire dangling slips of paper clamped on with wooden clothespins -- his novel filing system for jotted phrases & story ideas -- the original post-it notes? Nearby was his study, adjoined by another nook filled with books, a gramophone & a typewriter, the space often used by Charmian while she typed + edited + added descriptive passages to his manuscripts (sorry, Mr. Whipple, it seems he couldn't help but squeeze the Charmian).
Which leads to a 3rd, unanticipated reason that Call of the Wild was such a special book for us: It spurred conversations and memories of our own family's wolf-dog. Though in appearance he resembled White Fang much more than Buck, we couldn't help but get taken in by London's (or Mrs. London's?) description. The story's violence and dogs' poor treatment are, as expected, very difficult to take. But since we'd already studied a lot of historical accounts about the Gold Rush & learned about London's own trip to the Yukon (where he got such a debilitating case of scurvy that the doctor forbade him from working his claim & promptly sent him home), the truthfulness and reality of the experience helped offset, a little anyway, the brutality and inhumane aspects. Yet, it was the portrayal of Buck & his transformation that got us -- his depiction is so well done and provides such comic relief at times. When Buck finally finds Thornton, his last, nice owner, London shows his stuff by perfectly capturing
There were a few other, lingering effects on the kids, as well. Three days after our visit to Jack London State Park, Katrianna lost her first front tooth. She hopped around clutching her tooth fairy pocket, filled with hopeful prospects of the "gold" she might discover under her pillow the next morning. And for two or three months, inspired by London's next dog adventure story, she proudly referred to herself as "No Fang."
And the following Christmas, Grandma gave the girls sweaters. A bright, multicolor, striped one with a hood for Katrianna, but a light gray-green, "old-fashioned, ladylike Louisa" cardigan was Mikaela's pick. The aspiring author then began waking very early in the morning, when it was still a bit chilly, to don her sweater & take pencil in hand to write 1,000 or so words before breakfast. Mere coincidence, certainly, that she settled on that number... For she'd never readily admit that Jack London could offer any good writing tips.