Sunday, January 11, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 259: Jack London, The White Silence (#259)

Jack London, "The White Silence" (1899) from Jack London: Novels & Stories:

Confession: I almost didn't finish this story. About halfway through--when the Malamute Kid, Mason, and Mason's native wife are mushing through the wilderness--I felt I'd rather be eating than reading about people being cold in the awe-inspiring majesty of all that white silence, and yes, I think I will have tuna fish tonight, but what about the bread?

Not that the story started off boring, it just, well, if you've read Jack London before, you know that he can write about setting a lot. Which is nice if you're reading your first story about the arctic. If you feel like me, and feel like bailing on the story, DON'T. I'm not saying that it ends particularly well or that the story has aged well. But from about the halfway point, things start happening.

Or rather, one thing happens and it throws the simple journey story into complete disarray. Which is like a tiny master class in writing: character wants something (to travel from the wilderness to civilization) but can't for some reason--or rather, reasons, as the obstacles rise: food running out, dogs turning savage, and finally, large tree. (Oh, but don't forget those savage dogs and the dwindling supplies. Just because a bigger obstacle threatens the characters, doesn't mean the little ones go away.)

It's also a useful example for writers to look out because the stakes don't get raised all that much in the traditional way. Or rather: the real stakes become apparent only later on. At first, we might worry that this party of three is going to die, but that's it: they aren't bringing the vaccine to a dying town or carrying an amulet that will save the world.

And by the end, there's still a danger that they will all die (well, except for the one who does die); but the stakes for the Malamute Kid have changed a bit: it's not about survival or even what he'll do for survival, but what's the right thing for him to do in the situation and whether he'll be strong enough morally to do it. It's really interesting how London presents this horrible physical challenge of violence, cold, and hunger--and then completely redirects us towards this other challenge.

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