Novel Conversations is a podcast summarizing the world’s greatest works of classic literature: in 35 minutes you get the whole story from cover to cover. (If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!) In each episode, Frank Lavallo hosts two readers, and the three of them give their reactions to the story and read their favorite passages along the way. Each episode features Endnotes by Ted Schwartz, a segment with interesting facts about the author.More episodes
S5 Ep 5
Host: Frank Lavallo
Readers: Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik
Author: Jack London
Year of Publication: 1906
Plot: This adventure story details White Fang's journey to domestication in Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. The young pup, who is part wolf and part dog, struggles to survive after he is separated from his mother. White Fang eventually finds his life in the hands of a young gold hunter, Weedon Scott, who purchases the pup and attempts to tame him. After a long, patient effort, Scott succeeds.
Frank: Hello and welcome. I'm Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story you're in the right place.
This novel conversation is about White Fang by Jack London and I'll be joined by our Novel Conversations readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Elizabeth, Phil hello.
Elizabeth: Hi Frank.
Phil: Hi Frank. Good to be here!
Frank: Before we start our conversation let me give a brief summary of the novel White Fang. White Fang was written by Jack London and published serially in the outing magazine from May to October in 1906. White Fang is the story of the wolf dog, White Fang, and his early life in the Yukon territories. It is also the story of the men in his life; the bad owners the indifferent owners, and finally the understanding owner who saves his life. How White Fang relates to his environment the dogs the wolves and the men in his life and how he learns the rules of the wild and the rules of men eventually becoming a trusted and beloved pet. Make up the bulk of our novel. Elizabeth let's get started. The novel is called White Fang but we don't really meet White Fang until almost about a quarter of the way into the novel. How does this novel really start?
Elizabeth: Two mushers are carrying what we find out to be a man in his coffin across the Yukon territory it turns out they're delivering him to wherever he needs to be delivered. They've been out on the trail for a while. They are in trouble. They are being stalked by a pack of hungry wolves.
Frank: Very hungry wolves there's currently a famine in the land.
Phil: Right so they're being stalked by this pack of wolves. Henry and Bill are our characters and they have their sled team and they're also aware of the fact that they're slightly unprepared for this. They're down to their last three rounds of ammunition in their gun..
Frank: And they only have six dogs left on their team.
Phil: Exactly. So every night when they get up in the morning to break camp they're missing another sled dog. And they realize that what is happening they actually see this one day what is happening is there's a she wolf in this pack of wolves and she is coming into the camp and she is a whirring away his sled team
Elizabeth: One at a time.
Phil: One at a time in a sort of an ambush. She's whirring away these sled dogs who come to follow her. And then once they you sort of get out of reach the wolf pack comes in and attacks them and eats them.
Frank: Elizabeth the way this novel sets up these two men are in quite dire straits and yet I never get the sense from them that they're really panicked.
Elizabeth: Well certainly Henry is somewhat under control but there is some panic building in Bill. And every night when they make their camp not only do they worry for their dogs but they can actually see the eyes of the Wolves peering through the darkeness lit up by the flame just watching them and waiting.
Frank: And every night they move a little bit closer.
Elizabeth: Yes they do.
Frank: A little less afraid of the fire.
Elizabeth: And every day Bill is getting a little more vocal about the fact that this may not end well for them.
Frank: And Phil it doesn't end well for them…
Phil: It doesn’t..
Frank: About four or five days into their journey.
Phil: One morning when they break camp they actually see there's a She Wolf come in one ear is drawn out to her.
Frank: It was their head dog.
Phil: Exactly. So they see their sled dog drawn out to this ambush. And Bill sort of loses it here. He grabs their gun with their last three rounds of ammunition. He feels if he can get rid of the She Wolf who appears to be the leader of this pack or at least the brains of the pack they might have a fighting chance to survive.
Phil: Henry tries to dissuade them from this but it's no good. So Bill goes out into the woods to try and kill the She Wolf. And we don't see what happens.
Frank: But Henry hears what happens.
Phil: Yeah. We hear a shot and two more quick shots so we know that Bill was out of ammunition. And then there's the sound of one ear presumably being attacked. And then there's some yelping and then there's complete silence.
Elizabeth: Which to me was one of the real first signs of how tough life is up there. Henry never even looked back. He knew what happened, Bill was done. There's nothing he can do for him. And the only thing he could do to save himself, to keep going
Frank: And what's Henry's plan he comes up with a plan to get out of there quickly?
Phil: Right now he's in worse straits because he doesn't have a partner to help him build the fire and keep these wolves away.
Frank: And he's down to three dogs.
Phil: Down to three dogs. He's got this sled. He's got this casket on it. So he winches up the casket into some trees in the forest. So one he doesn't have to haul it anymore in his sled and two, so the wolves won't get it. It'll be safe.
Frank: I was a little bit amazed that even in the middle of all this peril and he's actually now going to have to fight for his life he does his job.
Phil: He does his job exactly.
Frank: He protects the body in the casket before trying to escape for his life.
Phil: Exactly. This opening part of the story closes with Henry in camp.He's built a circle of fire around himself to keep the wolves at bay. He realizes he can't go on all of his dogs now have been ordered away and killed. The fires are dying. He can't leave the circle of fire to go get more firewood or the wolves will be on him. John I think you remarked on his little alarm clock that he devised himself from falling asleep.
Frank: What was that alarm clock Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Talk about having to heat up you had to constantly throw something burning at the wolves to keep them away. So he had to stay awake. Well it’s hard to do after three or four days mushing all day. So he tied a piece of rope to his hand and then he would light the other end of the rope on fire. Then he let himself go to sleep and when that rope burned his hand that was time to wake up
Phil: Put a little bit more wood on the fire and relight the rope.
Elizabeth: And he did this all night. I've lit a match held it just little bit close to my finger and realized I wouldn't make it in the Yukon Territory.
Frank: You'd be one of those poor dogs lured off.
Elizabeth: Yes I would.
Frank: As the end comes for Henry this was the only scene that to me didn't really ring true.
Phil: Well it ends with basically the Calvary coming in
Frank: Literally at the last moment the fire’s gone. The wolves are just about ready to grab Henry.
Phil: Right they're inches from him.They're just about ready to devour him. And they hear the mushing of a troop of men coming through on sleds and the wolves disperse. And Henry literally at the last moment is saved.
Frank: That one scene really didn't ring true for me. This entire novel some of the insights into animal behavior and man's behavior towards animals was amazing but this one scene just seemed too serendipitous to me too contrived. Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: I'll give it to you. But to me there's one a little bit later that..
Frank: Was even worse
Elizabeth: Even worse to me
Frank: Well we'll save that and you remind me of it when we come to that scene. All right, with the rescue of Henry this is the end of part one of our novel and we now move into part two which is really the story of the she wolf. The novel really changes perspective here. Tell me a little bit about the She Wolf.
Elizabeth: Well essentially the famine breaks. They find moose and they find squirrels and things so they can eat but it's also mating season. And the she wolf the one that was luring all the other dogs out is now apparently the most wanted of the wolves and there's quite a mating dance which involves the death of two of the wolves before old One Eye the oldest and strongest and most scarred of the wolves wins the right to run with the She Wolf.
Frank: And they go off and they have their mating ritual and then what happens? Phil.
Phil: Well the she wolf we learn is pregnant because she's looking for a den or someplace to have her puppies this is what we realize in the end.
Elizabeth: We learn that One Eye is clueless
Frank: And this search goes on for a couple of days Jack London writes how she knew she was looking for something but she wasn't really sure what she wanted but she would check out this hole, check out this cave.She was really trying to find a birthing nest.
Phil: And she does and she gives birth to a litter of pups.
Frank: You know before we talk about her litter though let's talk a little bit about the She Wolf because we learn a few things about her. First thing we learn is that she's not a full Wolf she's actually half wolf half dog. Her mother was a dog.
Frank: Her father was a wolf and she spent some time with men.
She Wolf and One Eye come across an Indian camp to One Eye's dismay she's sort of drawn to this camp of men which of course the wolf wants nothing to do with.
Frank: Jack London describes it as certain sounds were familiar to her certain smells were familiar to her.So we get the impression that she's been in a camp before.
Phil: Right. So she minds her den where she's comfortable. She has the litter..
Frank: Three or four pups I think in the litter, something like that
Phil: She's protective of them against all comers including One Eye who she's not so sure about now because wolf fathers have been known to eat their offspring.
Elizabeth: So it's amazing the savage nature that comes out of her. I mean One Eye comes near and she gashes him right down the face.
Frank: And again Jack London tells us that this is some sort of an instinctual knowledge that she has that Father wolves sometimes in the past attack the baby wolves.
Frank: It's not a hundred percent sure why, but it's something she feels.
Elizabeth: We should point out that this book is really written from the perspective of the animals.
Frank: Certainly at the part where we are now.
Elizabeth: Yeah absolutely.So you're learning as they're learning.
Frank: But One Eye doesn't completely abandon his role as father to these pups.
Phil: No actually he turns out to be a pretty good wolf father I would say. He goes out and hunts during the day and brings kill back but as happens frequently throughout this story a famine hits and some of the pups die in fact they all die save one. And this forces One Eye to start looking for food in places he wouldn't otherwise look. And he has earlier observed a lynx in the area which is..
Frank: A mountain cat or
Phil: A mountain lion which has attacked a porcupine which he was keeping an eye on. He ends up getting that porcupine but he knows where this lynx lair is and he knows that the time may come when he's going to have to battle with that lynx because the famine may push him into a desperate move like that and in the end that is what happens, One Eye was killed in the battle with this Lynx which leaves our She Wolf mother and our pup.
Frank: The one surviving pup.
Phil: Right. The She Wolf discovers One Eyes body and she knows what's happened
Phil: And she walks into that lair and she doesn't go in there because she knows the danger in there but she thinks to herself Well the time may come when I have to go in there because the famine may get so bad that I have to risk that.
Frank: But they don't actually face this Lynx now.
Elizabeth: No, Then we go back to the cave and we start to get to know the one pup that's left. We're getting a view of the world through his eyes and it's a very small and controlled world and it's got three dark walls and one very very bright white wall which he knows he is not supposed to venture towards.
Frank: Well he sees his father One Eye going through this bright space.
Elizabeth: Well he did ya.
Frank: And he thinks well maybe I should be able to go through those walls as well. But he tests the theory on the other walls first and sure enough he tries to go through the one side of the cave bumps his nose gets a little scratch realizes that's not going to work. Tries another side of the wall bumps into that wall comes to the conclusion well maybe One Eye can go through these walls, apparently I can't.
Elizabeth: (laughing) Right.
Frank: But Phil there does come a time when he has to make for the entrance of the cave.
Phil: Here's the passage from the book. “But there were other forces at work in the cub the greatest of which was growth. Instinct and law demanded of him obedience but growth demanded disobedience. His mother in fear impelled him to keep away from the White Wall. In the end one day fear and obedience were swept away by the rush of life the Cub straddled and sprawled toward the entrance.”
Frank: Then Phil, Elizabeth once our Wolf Cub makes it out of his cave for the first time. He basically goes through some Disney esque chapters where he learns to walk he learns to run. His mother teaches them how to swim. He realizes that live things are good to eat but sometimes if it's a big live thing it can hurt you.
Elizabeth: And you feel like this is a joyful little creature. It's funny to know that this could grow up to be a man eating wolf.
Frank: And that's really how part two of our novel ends and we move right into part three. They meet man certainly She Wolf has met men before but this is the first sighting that our pup has of mankind. Phil.
Phil: Right. The Pup comes out of the cave one day and he's taking his usual route down to get a drink of water from the stream. And he smells something and he comes upon a small camp of he doesn't know what “they're men before him sitting silently on their haunches were five live things the like of which he had never seen before. It was his first glimpse of mankind.”
Elizabeth: Ya, What I think is amazing about that in the next paragraph the cub doesn't know whether to run or to stay. It says, “the cub had never seen man. Yet the instinct concerning man was his a great awe descended upon him.” And then this next line it was amazing to me. “He was beaten down to movelessness by an overwhelming sense of his own weakness and littleness.” Which is such a foreshadowing because these men are going to beat him to movelessness on multiple occasions.
Frank: Here was mastery and power something far and away beyond him. And he knows it. He knows it instinctually.
Elizabeth: Right, No other way to know it.
Frank: But Elizabeth let me ask you, he doesn't stay movelessness for long.
Elizabeth: No because he spied by the men who turn out to be Indians. So one of the Indians walks over to him and again by instinct he bears his teeth at him and the Indians laugh at him and they see his little teeth and they say look look at the White things.
Frank: Finally the Pup has a name. But interestingly enough the She Wolf we learn her name now as well.
Elizabeth: Well we do because White Fang gets into a little trouble right away right.
Phil: Right, as the Indian reaches down to pet White Fang London writes “you experience two great impulsions to yield and to fight the resulting action was a compromise. He did both. He yielded till the hand almost touched him. Then he fought his teeth flashing and a snap that sank them into the hand. The next moment he received a clout alongside the head that knocked him over on his side.”
Frank: And it's that yelping and crying from White Fang that brings the mother She Wolf
Phil: Right. She had heard the cry of her cub and was dashing to save him.
Elizabeth: And it's great because “the cub knew what that cry was and with the last long wail that had in it more of triumph than grief. He ceased his noise and waited for the coming of his mother of his ferocious and indomitable mother.”
Phil: So the cub knows these things whatever they are they're in for it now because here's mom. “And as she bounds into this little clearing to save her puppy the cry went up from one of the men Kiche was what he uttered. It was an exclamation of surprise. The cub felt his mother wilting at the sound. Kiche, the man cried again this time with sharpness and authority. And then the cub saw his mother. The She Wolf the fearless one crouching down til her belly touched the ground whimpering wagging her tail making peace signs.”
Frank: Elizabeth what's the story here.
Elizabeth: It turns out these are the Indians with whom she was born. Her parents were part of their dog pack and she lived with them. And so they knew this to be their dog.
Frank: She actually finds her prior owner Gray Beaver. And so now Gray Beaver decides he's gonna recapture his old pet Kiche as well as her pup White Fang and they're all going to go back to the camp.
Elizabeth: Right. And they understand animal nature as well. They don't tie up White Fang. They know he's a pup and they know he's gonna be wherever his mother is. So they tie up his mother and in so doing they get both animals at once and they only have to tie up Kiche long enough to let the instinct of the wild die down in her and the domesticated dog instinct come back to her.
Frank: She now ignores the call of the wild in response to the call of man.
Frank: Right. Ok, now, I want to talk a little bit about White Fangs experiences in the Indian camp. What happens to him. What happens to his mother and the rest of our story.
Frank: All right, Elizabeth when we left our two main characters Kiche the She Wolf and White Fang our wolf pup they had now entered into the camp of the Indians and with Gray Beaver who was the owner of Kiché and of course now the owner of White Fang. Kiché appears to be somewhat ok with being back in this camp and for White Fang it's an learning experience he's learning now the laws of man. In fact Jack London writes it this way “as his mother Kiche had rendered her allegiance to them at the first cry of her name, so he was beginning to render his allegiance,” but things don't go very well for White Fang while he's in this camp do they.
Elizabeth: Well one dog Lip Lip decides that he's wanted to fight White Fang whenever he could, “And as Lip Lip invariably won he enjoyed it hugely it became his chief delight in life as it became White Fangs chief torment.” But this is again where London starts to tell us about the strength of White Fang “the effect upon White Fang was not to cow him.”
Phil: In fact he writes, “yet a bad effect was produced. He became malignant morose his temper been savage by birth but it became more savage under this unending persecution.”
Elizabeth: And the next line is “the genial, playful, puppyish side of him found little expression.” And we will almost never see that side of White Fang again.
Frank: But this persecution by Lip Lip is not the worst thing that happens to White Fang while he's in the camp.He's got yet another tragedy to befall him.
Phil: Grey Beaver owes a debt to Three Eagles another Indian in camp.And to satisfy that debt he trades away Kiche to three Eagles who’s leaving on a trip.
Elizabeth: Which is a huge blow to him because despite the torment he's getting from Lip Lip there was always his mother to go back to and when White Fang as he was learning could trick Lip Lip into getting into the range of Kiche’s leash, Kiche gave Lip Lip the beating that White Fang couldn't yet give him.
Frank: That's right. White Fang becomes very skilled at cunning, becomes very sly in the way he battles Lip Lip and some of the other dogs that are tormenting him in the camp. He doesn't attack openly.
Phil: He knows he has to quickly go in and make any attack and get out because the whole pack of dogs led by Lip Lip will be on him quickly.
Frank: And he learns that dogs like to snarl and bark before they attack. So he learns just to attack.
Elizabeth: Which I loved it struck me as White Fang had watched so many movies where the guy pulls out a gun and announces this is the end of your life which of course is all the time that the good guy needs to take them by surprise and get rid of them before..
Frank: Why don't they just shoot James Bond instead of tying him down in some ways they're gonna go through airplane hangar and
Elizabeth: Well white thing was not going to be caught that way.
Frank: But Kiche is gone. What now happens with White Fang?
Elizabeth: Well when White Fang saw Kiche being taken off this was a knife through his heart that nothing so far had been. So he of course tries to take off after them. Of course Grey Beaver captures him and gives him a beating like he's never experienced in his life. And he truly was within an inch of his life. But that's the cunning of the Indian. He knew how far to beat him that he wouldn't quite die. But it was going to make an affect.
Phil: And it's because of this beating and because of the treatment at the hands of Grey beaver that White Fang transfers all his allegiance to Grey Beaver and he really does become this man's dog.
Elizabeth: Right is amazing despite the pain that he inflicted that pain is also equal to power and his instinct responded to power. So Grey Beaver was now his leader.
Frank: There comes a time when camp gets broken up and they decide to go to a local fort.
Phil: So White Fang decides this is gonna be his opportunity. He's going to stay behind and stay in the wild. He goes out into the woods and he hides as Grey Beaver is calling for him calling for him. He just stays where he is and he waits.
Elizabeth: Which was tough for him because grey Beaver was his leader. But the call of the wild at that point was stronger.
Frank: Stronger than the call of the man.
Phil: Exactly. And he waits until he's confident that the Indians have left and he returns to the now empty camp ground. And he quickly
Elizabeth: Very quickly
Phil: Realizes that he's not quite sure why it is that he's done here. And he suddenly feels a sense of loneliness out here in the wild.
Frank: It's a poignant moment. He actually goes into the circle where Grey Beavers teepee had once stood and lies down on that circle because he still has some of the scent from when Grey Beaver and his family were in that place.
Elizabeth: And it gets dark and it gets cold and it gets windy and suddenly you realize I'm really just a pup. I don't know what I'm doing out here. Maybe I can still find them.
Frank: It was one thing when I had my mom out here with me but now I'm on my own
Elizabeth: And he runs for 30 hours straight.
Frank: Right, the endurance of a wolf
Elizabeth: And he actually does find the camp again.
Frank: Eventually though Gray Beaver decides he's gonna go to the local Fort. He's got goods to trade. He's been hunting and collecting pelts all winter. He wants to go to the camp and trade his goods. This is when White Fang first sees white man.
Elizabeth: There are buildings there is machinery that life is literally bigger and the white man seems to be able to control it all.
Phil: Right. White Fang was terrified and very impressed by the tepees in the Indian camp when he first encountered them. These must be gods that can erect these huge things.
Frank: And if you think a teepee is something where do you see a four story building in the town.
Phil: What is happening here is there is a steamboat that comes in and it's disgorging all these gold seekers.
Frank: Right, This is the Yukon gold rush times.
Phil: Exactly. So they're arriving with their dogs, they're not as dogs
Frank: Pampered pets.
Phil: Exactly. So just as Grey Beavers preying upon these novices who need his wares White Fang is preying upon these dogs that come off the steamship and he quickly gains a reputation in town as the fiercest fighting dog.
Frank: He's actually now called the fighting Wolf
Phil: Which is not good because it draws the attention of a man called Beauty Smith.
Frank: What's he about?
Elizabeth: Beauty Smith is named Beauty of course because he is anything but and he's a mean horrible person. He wants to own this fighting Wolf because he's a dog fighter so he has to buy him from Gray beaver. So Beauty Smith comes up with the plan and this to me is a weak link in the book.
Frank: Phil what was beauty Smith's plan.
Phil: Well basically Beauty Smith is going to ply Grey Beaver with whiskey. He just shows up one day with a jug of whiskey. It takes a few days to get all the money that he's made selling his pelts, he's spent now on whiskey seems a little improbable
Elizabeth: Ya, it just seems...
Phil: But in any event there's Beauty Smith with another jug for him and saying I'll buy White Fang off you for...
Elizabeth: This last pint of whiskey.
Frank: Here's a man who knew how to deal with wolves but he couldn't really deal with a wolf in man's clothing.
Elizabeth: Yeah right.
Phil: Right, But it's not that simple for White Fang. His loyalties don't transfer with this business arrangement, it takes I think three times and each time he's savagely beaten. The third time
Elizabeth: By Beauty Smith not by Gray Beaver
Phil: He realizes that Gray Beaver is not going to step in. He's not going to prevent this
Elizabeth: And there is a sense that Beauty Smith will beat him till he's dead. He's not trying to break his spirit.
Frank: In fact he pens him up and turns him into a fighting dog. So Beauty Smith decides he's gotta take this dog on the road but finally White Fang does meet his match an English Bulldog.
Phil: An unusual dog for these parts, White Fain doesn't know quite what to make of him. The dog just sort of stands there looking at White Fang and of course the wolf way of fighting is to jump in slash at your enemy and you jump back again until you can go for the throat
Elizabeth: And one of White Fang strengths was that he had learned never to be knocked off his feet. If you get off your feet you die. But how do you knock a bulldog off his feet.
Frank: His trick was that he would knock the other dog off their feet. But you've got a little guide at stand and no more than a foot off the ground. No way you can get underneath this bulldog to tip him over.
Elizabeth: So during White Fang’s confusion, the Bulldog gets a bite on him.
Phil: Right. Once he closes his jaws on your throat he never lets go. Basically he’s gonna suffocate you by crushing your windpipe back.
Frank: How does he get out of this situation.
Phil: Well he doesn't really get out of it once again man has to step in. But there's a big crowd around watching this dog fight. A sled pulls up with two men on it. Wieden Scott and his dog musher Matt. He steps in to break it up.
Elizabeth: He is enraged about what these men are doing calling them cowards and beasts and dumping them aside.
Frank: As we come to learn later both Wieden Scott and his guy met train and run sled dogs. They care about these dogs so Wieden Scott and Matt take White Fang and they're gonna see what they can do with him.
Elizabeth: And they recognize him to be a wolf more than a dog so they know that there's little potential for training him but they're just not going to let him die.
Frank: But Phil are they successful in rescuing and rehabilitating White Fang.
Phil: They are slowly. He does learn to trust Scott.
Frank: He becomes their pet
Elizabeth: to everyone including White Fangs amazement.
Phil: Right. And he transfers his loyalty now to Scott when he's out in the camp with the other dogs. He quickly learns that these dogs belong to Scott therefore White Fang isn’t supposed to kill them all which is what he would do normally.
Phil: He realizes the things that belong to Scott the cabin his property are things that he's supposed to protect.
Frank: And he does.
Elizabeth: But in a different way than it did with Grey Beaver he'll stay up all night to keep watch outside the cabin. Where as with Grey Beaver he never did that he just knew no one else was allowed to touch it. If he saw it he would do something about it. But here he's taking an active role in caring for his God.
Frank: But there does come a time when Weiden Scott has to leave the Yukon territory and he's gonna go back to his home. He can't take a wolf with him back to San Francisco. He tries to leave him with Matt. How successful is that.
Phil: As Scott is leaving on the steamship there's White Fang on the deck of the boat.
Frank: Just as White Fang had once tracked down Grey Beaver, he tracks down Weiden Scott and Scott realizes I can't leave this dog. How does he like San Francisco?
Phil: Well he doesn't like it but fortunately for White Fang Scott lives outside of the city.
Elizabeth: Probably known as Napa Valley now?
Phil: Perhaps. And he lives there on this estate with his wife and children but also his family his father is a judge
Elizabeth: And as you might imagine they're appalled when he brings the full grown Wolf onto their property.
Phil: A snarling growling full grown Wolf.
Elizabeth: And this is yet another amazing set of scenes where the instinct of animal gives into the instinct of man.
Frank: The pet dog wins out over the wild wolf.
Elizabeth: Yeah, but I really think London is saying, is that love wins out.
Frank: So, Elizabeth we have one more trial for White Fang to go through before he can live out the rest of his life fat and happy on this estate. You wanna tell us a little bit about Jim Hall.
Elizabeth: Jim Hall is a notorious murderer who has just escaped from prison. The people on Wieden Scott's farm are particularly concerned because the judge, Wieden’s father, sentenced this man and he swore if he ever got out that he'd come back and get him.
Frank: Sure enough he gets out. Sure enough he comes back.
Elizabeth: He does well they don't know this yet but they're worried about this. Fortunately unbeknownst to everyone else on the farm Alice, Sweden's wife, after everyone's in bed has been coming downstairs and letting White Fang into the front hall. And that turns out to be quite fortuitous.
Frank: So sure enough Jim Hall shows up at the Scott House looking for the judge but he finds White Fang instead.
Phil: Yes and here's the passage in the book. “On one such night while all the house slept White Fang awoke and lay very quietly and very quietly he smelled the air and read the message it bore of a strange God's presence into his ears came sounds of the strange Gods movements. White Fang burst into no furious outcry. It was not his way.”
Elizabeth: So all that White Fang had learned about how to fight how to be cunning how to be quiet how to not announce yourself before your attack comes into play right here at the foot of the stairs.
Phil: No snarling no bristling no warnings
Frank: Just an attack
Frank: And he attacks Jim Hall and takes him down.
Elizabeth: Judge Weiden is now the biggest fan of who is now to be known as the blessed Wolf.
Frank: Alright he went from the fighting Wolf. Now he is the blessed Wolf.
Frank: And does he live happily ever after, our White Fang?
Elizabeth: As a matter of fact he does.
Frank: And that's our story of White Fang by Jack London. Phil, tell me what makes White Fang a book worth reading for you.
Phil: To me it struck me as a great study on the law. White Fang is a very upright Noble and a law abiding character in this book. What he wanted to do is find out what the law was in the wild, in camp, on his master's farm so he could follow it. And he felt as long as he was following the law and being just that justice would be meted out to him.
Elizabeth: Right. And that would give him some level of happiness if he was doing what was right. That meant he would be left alone. And that was good enough for him.
Frank: It's funny to say but he never made a value judgment about the law. He just wanted to know what it was so he could follow the rules.
Frank: And what about for you though Elizabeth, what makes this a book reading for you?
Elizabeth: All of that and then you add on the constant battle between instincts and needs. If he followed his instincts all the time he would have snarled he would have growled he would have bit man's hand when he wanted to because this person had been mean to him. But those laws contrary to his instinct did produce some sort of peace. So he constantly had to battle that. And so do we.
Frank: To me I started thinking well this is going to be a man versus nature story. But really it changed and what it became for me was about White Fang and his two natures. He had the wolf nature and he had the dog nature and the wolf nature was the call of the wild and the dog nature was the call of man. And he's torn. And the dog nature wins out for White Fang and for me that's what made this a very interesting novel to read.
Elizabeth: And it's hard not to add a religious aspect to it in that, of course the dog looks at man as Gods. So in his mind these are all powerful all knowing people. So there's some interesting parallels in there.
Frank: That's right. What do we owe to our gods and what do we owe to our masters. Then what do our gods owe us. Okay. Elizabeth Phil before we end our conversation today on White Fang Do you have a passage or a moment you want to recount for us.
Elizabeth: We talked earlier about the lynx finding a porcupine and then One Eye who was White Fang’s father eventually finding the porcupine too. Well it's a great story because the way the porcupine defends himself is to turn himself into a ball of quills. There is no soft underbelly. He keeps himself close and tight and the animals know this. And it's a waiting game. They have to sit and watch and figure out is he going to give up in 10 minutes so I can wait. Or is this gonna be four hours and maybe I'm better off just going off and the porcupine once he's closed himself up doesn't know if they're still there or not. So he's got to weigh that. And so London describes it like this “half an hour passed, an hour and nothing happened. The ball of quills might have been a stone for all it moved. The Lynx might have been frozen to marble and old One Eye might have been dead. Yet all three animals were key to a tenseness of living that was almost painful.” So if you were walking through the woods it would all seem quiet and still and absolutely nothing happened. And yet there's a fierce battle going on. I thought that was great.
Frank: Phil, How about you you have a line or a moment you want to give me?
Phil: Just a short passage when the Indians have broke camp and White Fang is decide this is his chance to be free and he's hidden in the woods and he's waited till the Indians have left and he comes back to the empty camp and he realizes that he's alone now and he realizes that he was hungry and he remembered pieces of meat and fish that had been thrown at him, “here was no meat nothing but a threatening and edible silence his bondage had softened him irresponsibility had weakened him.
He had forgotten how to shift for himself.” So here his freedom is only a couple hours old and he was quickly going to decided that he had to get back to man.
Frank: Elizabeth you had another one for us?
Elizabeth: Yeah. Another one was about a story of White Fang is facing down an older Wolf out in the wild and it's over a piece of meat and they're both equidistant from the piece of meat and it's a battle of the wills again. And at some point White Fang decides all right, this guy's older, bigger, maybe this isn't such a good idea. And he's about to go but the other guy flinches and White Fang, even in his wolf mind says oh that guy if he had just held on one second longer I was gonna give him to him. And as I was reading this book I've had a two year old nephew over and I was putting him down for a nap and I put him down in the crib and he was crying and pointing to a bed and wanted so to be in that bed not in the crib. And I'm thinking I just want this kid to nap and maybe I'll just do it as long as he'll be quiet. But I haven't done it yet. I'm just staring him down thinking it and all of a sudden he takes his blankey turns over and goes to sleep and I realize Oh I won the battle of the wills although I didn't mean to.
Frank: So let me get this right. Your two year old nephew flinched and you win.
Elizabeth: And I thought of White Fang.
Frank: Very good. My passage has to do with the law. Here's the passage. This is White Fang learning the law. “The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was Eat or be eaten. It did not formulate the law in clear set terms and moralize about it. He did not even think about the law. He merely lived the law without thinking about it at all.”
Elizabeth: Oh, Frank that really sums up the whole book.
Elizabeth: You're welcome.
Frank: And with that this is where we'll end our conversation today on Jack London's White Fang. Elizabeth, Phil I want to thank both of you for coming in and having a conversation with me.
Phil: Thanks Frank we enjoyed it.
Elizabeth: Frank we love being here.
Phil: Thank you Frank.
Frank: You've been listening to Novel Conversations.
Novel Conversations a production of The Front Porch People.
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Novel Conversations was produced by Julie Fink and engineered by Sean Rule-Hoffman, Eric Koltnow and Dave Douglas. And a special thanks to our Executive Producer, Elizabeth Andrews. I'm your host, Frank Lavallo, until next time, I hope you find yourself in a Novel Conversation.
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