When winter reaches its coldest and darkest, some people like to fill their brains with escapist fiction full of warm beaches and sun-kissed romance. I find the cold too consuming for those fantasies. I magnify it into blizzards and ice ages. And while for every icy thriller, one can find a cozy ski lodge, this year I’m stuck in the permafrost.
There’s a Jack London short story you might remember from a high school English class—I certainly can’t forget it. It’s called “To Build a Fire.” The protagonist is trekking with a husky across a frozen Yukon trail, ignoring the advice of the old-timer to never travel alone below fifty degrees. As London says, “This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point.” When, halfway through his journey, he meets with disaster, he knows that his only chance of survival is starting and maintaining a fire. But the chill that necessitated the fire also attacks his coordination, and his numbed fingers can no longer manage delicate tasks. More than a century after it was first published, London’s story remains both compelling and horrifying.
Jack London’s body of writing extends past the frigid short story. His two most famous works are the novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild. And while the winters they portray are just as disturbingly frigid, the real violence of the stories comes from the wolves, sled dogs, and the humans around them.
The Call of the Wild is a sensational work, full of the feeling of running, the sting of a first snowflake, and the passion of love. The main character, Buck, is a pampered San Francisco estate dog, kidnapped and brought north for the Yukon gold rush. And while his understanding is enhanced and anthropomorphized for the sake of narrative, it’s an ultimately canine story. It’s also a fierce story, and the sensational delights are more than matched by the dizzying force of clubs, the taste of fresh blood, and the bone-wearying effects of pride and cruelty. It shows its age only in a few unfortunate moments of thoughtless racism, where the dog—having shed most of the trappings of civilization—is still treated as more human than the (fictional) Yeehat Indian tribe members he is attacking.
To see how a more modern author addresses similar questions of civilization and survival in the same setting, try Julie of the Wolves, a Newbery Medal-winning juvenile novel by Jean Craighead George. The protagonist, a thirteen-year-old Yupik girl, is torn from safety by her mother’s death, her father’s abandonment, and her own child marriage and domestic abuse. She packs a bag and runs away, hoping to eventually reach the home of her pen pal in California. But miles of tundra separate her from the shipping ports, and she is dangerously underprepared for survival. Craighead George, unlike London, develops within her heroine humility, ingenuity, and compromise. Her story, while violent, accepts violence as only one part of natural law.
For more stories of wolves and sled dogs to chill your bones:
- Running North: A Yukon Adventure
- Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers : Reflections on Being Raised by a Pack Of Sled Dogs
- Never Cry Wolf
- Yukon Alone: The World’s Toughest Adventure Race
- No End in Sight: My Life as a Blind Iditarod Racer
- The Cruelest Miles: A Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic