Thursday, June 22, 2017

"To Build a Fire" (1908)

Read story by Jack London online.

One of the happy surprises I've had on this short story project is discovering how much I like the nature stories, "man vs. nature," as the English teachers explained it. This is one of the best yet. It's among London's best-known and most anthologized stories, but it's not the first one he wrote under the title. There's also a 1902 version, which I don't know. The premise is simple. The setting is the far north regions of North America. We never learn the name of our hero, who is trekking with a dog across wilderness to reach a camp by day's end. It's extremely cold—50 below zero F. or colder, our hero speculates, but at one point the third-person narrator who mostly stays inside the head of our guy steps out for a few beats to let us know it is actually 75 below. That's cold. The hiker keeps his lunch under his layers of clothes next to his chest and belly to keep it from freezing hard. He thinks occasionally about an old-timer who warned him never to travel alone in weather colder than 50 below. He knows he is taking a risk but feels confident. He has experience and knows the dangers. But this is not a story that ends well, and the power of it is all descriptive and rhythmic. London sets out all the basic elements and shows how the situation can naturally if unexpectedly grow worse. Then he shows what happens next. The last few pages are vivid and even hard to read. I had to take a couple of breaks to compose myself. Jim Thompson has written in similarly strong ways about claustrophobic experience. Here it is nearly unimaginable cold. I have experienced near 40-below temperatures, and certainly know well the kinds of things that happen at 20 below. Seeing the man attempting to deal with a drenched leg as the result of stepping in a hidden pool (a natural feature in the region) is extraordinarily intense, especially the more you see how skilled the man is even as he steadily loses to the elements. I know from The Call of the Wild how good London can be with animals, and the dog here and its relationship with the man are nearly equal to that again. The story is sustained entirely by description and long, blocky paragraphs (which you know I have to love), with no relief from dialogue. Yet it sets and maintains a powerful rhythm, as it moves from the start, with the man's thoughts of his lunch and getting back to camp that evening, to the awful events that descend on him, one at a time.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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