Book review: Jack London’s Dog

Jack London’s Dog
by Dirk Wales, Illustrated by Barry Moser
Published by Great Plains Press, Chicago 2008
ISBN: 0963245937
Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This is the most charming children’s book I’ve ever read since The Chronicles of Narnia, which the movies do not do justice to! It’s a fictional account of what might have happened to the dog named Jack that author Jack London knew during his brief sojourn in Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1897. This is the same dog on which London based the character of Buck, the domestic dog who goes feral in his classic novel “Call of the Wild”. Dog lovers will adore this book, which gives such loving insight into a dog’s point of view about the behavior of humans. Even a cat lover like me will find it easy to get into Jack’s character and sympathize with him.

Jack is a big, lovable mastiff who lives with Marshall Bond and a group of other miners in a shack on Split Up Island on the Yukon River. He spends his time pulling sleds and guarding the property of his masters on the island. Jack goes through three masters in this book, not all of them good men. Since there were so many people coming and going during the turbulent period of the Gold Rush, lots of things got left behind, passed on to, or stolen by others. Supplies, tents, horses and dogs were valuable assets to gold miners. Smart men knew how to take care of these assets; not so smart ones would wear them out, lose or destroy them through carelessness and stupidity.

The young Jack London came to Split Up Island during the winter of ’97, along with two companions, to try their luck at panning for gold, as did many young men of that era. When Jack London met Jack the mastiff, the first thing the dog did was go up to the man and smell him, while the man put his hands deeply into the dog’s fur and stroked him. Jack thought that “The man’s hands felt good…and he smelled right”, so he accepted him. This was the beginning of a brief but beautiful friendship.

Jack the dog and Jack the man became very close during that bitter Alaskan winter, so close that Jack the dog saved Jack the man’s life when a runaway horse nearly trampled him in town.

Sadly, despite the deep friendship that developed between the two Jacks over the winter, when the spring thaw came Jack the man was forced to return to his home in Oakland, California after he became sick. For weeks afterward, Jack the dog spent a lot of time on the bank of the Yukon River, looking upstream and whining sadly as he waited for his beloved master to return. But he never came back.

Meanwhile, Franco Stupendo and his two brothers also came to the Yukon to seek their fortune. They needed dogs and didn’t care how they got them, so they stole Jack and another dog from Split Up Island one dark night. Now poor Jack spent his days slaving away with three other dogs, pulling a sled filled with heavy equipment, used as a beast of burden when there wasn’t enough room on the sled for supplies, frequently beaten and forced to go hungry when the food ran short. He spent his nights dreaming of his good friend Jack and how he would return one day to save him from these brutal men.

But it was another good man who saved Jack, a stranger who walked into the Stupendo brothers’ camp one day to feed the starving dogs. His name was Jake Jamison; he took a fancy to Jack and claimed that Jack was his dog and had been stolen from him on the Yukon River. He had to beat up one of the Stupendo brothers in order to take Jack away, but beat him he did, and Jack went happily with his new master, who was as kind as the Stupendos were cruel. So began another beautiful friendship, one that would last longer, as this man stayed to seek his fortune in the Yukon with his faithful dog by his side.

The author divides his time between showing us how Jack London is doing in Oakland, writing what would become his bestselling classic about life in the Yukon, and how Jack the dog does in the Yukon with his new master, who discovers that his new best friend has a talent for finding people who have been buried beneath deep snow by the frequent avalanches. This talent comes in very handy when a little girl goes missing after an avalanche and her frantic mother comes looking for the Avalanche Dog to find her buried child. Happily, Jack is able to locate the little girl, who becomes his good friend, while her grateful mother takes a shine to Jack’s friend Jake.

Dirk Wales gives both Jacks, man and dog, a happy ending in this book, which is charmingly illustrated by the talented Barry Moser. The stark black and white illustrations give a more realistic view of the harshness of life in the Yukon than all the pretty pictures in your average kids’ book. So if you love dogs, or know a child who does, be sure to get a copy of “Jack London’s Dog” for yourself or your favorite young dog lover to while away a cold winter’s night. It’s got the Mom’s Choice Award, and is as wholesome as a kid’s book can get without descending into sentimentality. I recommend it for kids between 6 and 12 years old, who are just getting into the classics and need something more challenging than the average kids’ book filled with brightly colored pictures of talking animals and toys. This book teaches kids about the values of friendship and kindness to animals without being preachy or moralistic. It doesn’t attempt to protect kids from the harshness of life, but warns them that there is cruelty in the world and they had better be prepared to defend themselves from it, as well as those they love. It also shows them that there is goodness in the world, and the company of good people and good dogs can be more rewarding than a pile of gold nuggets.