This feels like a book I really ought to have read in my school days, but never did. It has that air about it of ‘prescribed reading’, a title that is so well known but which is somehow not approached voluntarily for being too worthy somehow. As it turns out, it’s not bad at all bar some understandable quibbles.
White Fang is no sentimental story about a doggie. From the outset we are introduced to White Fang’s mother as a formidable half-wolf, half-domestic running with the pack as she leads them in its hunger first to consume the dogs of a sled party, then to begin on the people, getting one before the other is rescued. This opening, told from the point of view of the men, hardly arouses feelings of sympathy for the animals. Nonetheless, there is something vaguely comedic about the men with their underplaying their concern about their mortal danger, and though this may be deemed bravery, there is also something about it which suggests foolishness. Foolishness is clearly something White Fang’s mother does not suffer from, and so when the baton of POV is passed to her in her running with the pack we are intrigued.
This introductory has no impact upon the story to come and may have been abandoned without ill-effect, but London has set out his stall. He is not seeking our affection for the animals he makes his central characters, but our respect.
All that follows, even prior to the birth of White Fang, is to shape his character and is pertinent to that development. We see his mother something of a loner, abandoning the pack to travel only with the wolf who is to become White Fang’s father before that wolf itself dies. With the death of his siblings, White Fang is left alone with his mother. Everything, from her harsh but pragmatic raising of White Fang, through his getting lost upon stumbling out of their cave one day, through his adoption by a native American who finds him to continue to raise him with equal pragmatism sets up White Fang’s childhood with his developing wildness and his dislike of the domestic dogs he encounters in their mistrust of him. At the same time, he learns himself to become obedient to mankind. His youth falls to a repellent man who brutalises White Fang to prepare him for lucrative dog fights, and that breeds strength and savagery. Finally he is rescued, near death, by a caring man who at least brings affection into White Fang’s existence, though it’s an affection that does not meet with a lavish response from White Fang who reciprocates, instead, with an intense loyalty to the end of the work, culminating in a heroic deed that has White Fang renowned amongst the people in his own neighbourhood, and he himself becoming a father by a domesticated bitch. Even here, however, at its most sentimental, the work is far from teary-eyed.
White Fang is a good read, but dated. We have become suspicious of the idea that we can put ourselves into the minds of animals, perhaps too much so, and though London is careful about over-anthropomorphising, he does so just the same out of the necessity of telling the story at all from an animal’s point of view. To make up for that we never fully emphathise with White Fang. London has him maintain his distance, if only in terms of our fellow-feeling. It is there, but it is always tempered.
It’s difficult to imagine how such a book would be written today. It probably wouldn’t be, at least not by any author who wished to be taken seriously. (At this point I’m sure I will be told of dozens of works which prove me wrong, but I doubt any would have all the ingredients of White Fang, from his wildness and savagery through to the respect he demands). A cultural period piece then? Perhaps, but who knows what the future holds? We have swung from excessive anthropomorphism of the animal kingdom to all but none, forgetting perhaps the animal within us in refusing to put us into the animals. Perhaps when a better balance is struck at some future time, London’s interpretation will be seen as rather more valid.