Jack London’s classic novel tells the story a wolf-dog cross, from his early life in the wild, to his lasting passion for the man who befriends him. When we first meet White Fang’s mother, she is leading a pack of wolves that is tracking and picking off the sled dogs of pair of men who are travelling across northern America. She herself is part dog, and has been domesticated after a fashion, but this doesn’t stop her from luring the dogs and one of the sledders to their deaths. In the course of the winter, she mates with one of the older wolves in the pack, and the following spring has a litter of pups. The feisty White Fang is the only one to survive, and learns to hunt and fight at his mother’s side. He is a few months old when they chance upon an American Indian settlement, and White Fang’s mother is claimed by her old owner. This is White Fang’s introduction to men, and his life is never the same again. He is later traded to a vicious dog-fighter called Beauty Smith, before being rescued by young prospector named Scott. This is where White Fang’s life changes again, and while never quite losing his wild streak, becomes a faithful companion of Scott, and leads a happy domesticated life.
I have seen London’s novels described as ‘morality tales’, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Without any moral judgement or opinion the novel presents a bleak and harsh world, where it is a case of kill or be killed. As a pup, White Fang learns the reality of survival of the fittest, and once in the realm of men has further harsh lessons in obedience and loyalty. It is true that the nature of some men is touched on, and drawing a comparison between the ‘good’ of Scott and ‘evil’ of Smith, and the way White Fang reacts to them, is inevitable. However this is White Fang’s story, and he knows nothing of morals.
As you would expect, the bulk of the novel is presented through the eyes of the dog. He knows fear, courage and even love (the scene where a ‘teenage’ White Fang meets his mother, who of course doesn’t remember him, is particularly touching), and London manages to do this without anthropomorphising him in any way. Nor does it feel like conjecture or some kind of nature documentary. He really manages to put you inside the head of this wild animal, showing you how he changes and grows with experience. I enjoyed getting to know White Fang, and was completely immersed in the cold, harsh landscape he inhabits.