Monday, November 16, 2009

Reader's Diary #545- Jack London: To Build A Fire

Way back in '02 when I was teaching in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, I had a chance to attend a teachers' conference in Calgary. One of the speakers I had the pleasure I seeing was renown teacher and parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso. I really enjoyed her no-nonsense and honest approach to dealing with children. However, I took issue with one of her examples, and it's stuck with me to this day. "Children should be allowed to learn on their own, to learn from their own mistakes," she said-- so far, so good-- "if your kids, for example, are going outside, you don't have to insist they put on their mittens. Their hands will get cold, and they'll put them on."

People cheered (yes, teachers get excited for things like that). Except I didn't. I'd just come from Rankin where we had an entire month below -60° C (-76°F). If I'd let my students go outside without mittens in those temperatures, before they realized their hands were cold, they'd have severe frostbite. That's a bit of a harsh lesson, don't you think?

Well, it's no where near the harsh lesson learned by the protagonist in Jack London's "To Build A Fire." In this tale, an unnamed man sets out to walk towards a logging camp in the interior of the Yukon. It's the middle of winter and his only companion is a dog. It would seem that the story is preoccupied with the cold, cold temperatures, but it isn't about London boiling a survival tale down to its essence, it's simply a survival tale. A man is in danger of freezing to death, of course there is only one focus.

"To Build a Fire" is an insanely a well-written story. I love in the opening paragraph when London writes,
It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man.
So much is accomplished in these two lines. An intangible pall. Subtle gloom. Absence of sun... the man was not worried? Without having set foot in the north, a reader could easily ascertain that London is setting this guy up for a fall. Not, of course, that a reader would root for this man's demise, but it would certainly be nice if the man could learn a lesson and live to tell it.

One of the most compelling sentences of the story is when London writes, "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination." It's a stance that seems to contradict many other survival stories in which man must keep his wits about him and not to let his imagination get the better of him. London's logic seems to have been that an imaginative man might contemplate his insignificance in the greater scheme of things and use that fear wisely.

Getting back to the temperatures for a second, it gets cold here in Yellowknife to be sure, but nothing compared to Rankin Inlet. I mentioned the -60 temps there, but the coldest I experienced was -74 (-101 F). That, by the way, is colder than the day in London's story by about 25 degrees. Then, I spent most of that day in my cozy apartment.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)


JoAnn said...

I can't begin to imagine what temperatures that cold must feel like...below a certain point I wonder if you can even tell a difference? The quotes you selected this week are wonderful and make me want to read the story.

My post is about a story from Oprah's latest selection.

Teddy Rose said...

What a great review John! I love the story you tell about the "parenting expert" and the quotes were excellent. I printed out the story to read.

I know I am a day late, but Internet was down all day yesterday. Here is my short story:

Unknown said...

I haven't read a Jack London story in ages. I should give this one another look. I live just one county over from his ranch and the famed Wolf House. I know people who knew people who knew him. They seem to have doubts about how accurate his accounts of the Yukan actually are.

But, I've always found his stuff to be very good reads.