"Love of Life" by Jack London
Love of Life book review
Wow, wow, wow! Sums up this short story by Jack London. What an incredibly gripping tale of survival this short story turned out to be. Right from the very first sentence you are trapped into reading the rest of this compelling story.
The Plot of Love of Life (no spoilers)
The story is simple and immediately understandable, two gold prospectors are suffering from starvation as they trudge wearily across the frozen tundra of Canada to find food. One of the men is called Bill and the other, our protagonist, remains unnamed for the entirety of the story. Unfortunately for our man, starvation and exposure to the elements are the good news for him because he soon sprains an ankle and his dear friend Bill abandons him to his fate. Without bullets for his rifle, he marches towards an uncertain fate.
A Real Page Turner
One of the most laudable aspects of this short story is that it is supremely economical. By that I mean, at the moment you comprehend these poor gent's predicament, you urgently want to know how they got themselves into this mess in the first place. You are given the gift of an endless possibility of back stories by London's restraint in not providing you with one himself. In other words, unlike a less seasoned author might have, he didn't over-write it. Jack London show's his skill in Love of Life by only providing exactly what we need to make the tale compelling. Screen writers and directors call this getting into the scene late and getting out early. I would love to have seen what Jack could have done with a movie!
But this lack of an explanation is also a bit crafty and I wonder if it is a device London uses to keep you anticipating the reveal? We'll never know for sure but it is a lot of fun to speculate about. Employing such a tactic opens the author to the danger of the reader being disappointed if the reveal never comes but there is nothing at all disappointing about this adventure.
The brilliance of the piece is that it compels you to want to know how the saga ends and what happens to our poor prospector. Your own fear of his situation and your empathy for his plight will not allow you to stop reading until you know the outcome. The prospector is sure that his old pal, Bill, will wait for him and the rendezvous point and we hope along with him, all the while secretly thinking to ourselves that Bill, that scurvy dog, will certainly not wait. This again is a clear demonstration of Jack London's writing genius. If he had not created that situation and just left it at Bill leaving his friend behind, we would not anticipate the future disaster. It's like Alfred Hitchcocks's famous 'Bomb Theory', tension is created by showing us what will potentially go wrong. He shows us the bomb under the table and we anticipate it's detonation and that creates tension. Surprise is when the bomb goes off but we didn't know it was there. London knows the difference and creates tension in the reader by introducing the specter of Bill's callousness.
Needless to say this poor devil is beset by obstacles that might deter old Job himself including a close encounter with a bear. But, in the end, it is a lone wolf that endlessly stalks him that creates the most anxiety. Sick and starving himself, the wolf slowly walks behind the hapless prospector. Like a chase in slow motion they both stumble across the tundra, each waiting for the other to die first. A more gruesome fate, however, hangs over the prospector because he knows that, should he lay down, too weak to fight, then the wolf would set about the feasting, devouring him alive. Several times, in fact, the wolf creeps forward to lick his face while he sleeps, testing his strength and his ability to fight off an attack. And each time he scampers back, waiting with the patience of the starved and desperate.
The pursuit goes on, day after endless day until our prospector can no longer walk. His feet are bloody ribbons and so he continues on his hands and knees, all the while looking for something, anything to eat. Why won't that wolf die? And when he looks back he finds that the wolf has found something to eat. It limps along behind him, licking up the trail of blood left by the prospector's own, bleeding knees.
Few writers could create so much terror out of a nearly dead wolf but Jack London keeps revealing his expertise at manipulating us when he introduces the possibility of salvation in the form of a whaling ship. Rescue at last! Well London is not going to let us relax quite so easily. At the moment the prospector spots the ship, London makes us believe that he does not possess the physical strength to make his way to it. Our prospector's titanic will to live doesn't fail him but his body is close to it's end and he grows ever weaker, ever closer to the ripping jaws of the death-wolf that follows.
Does our poor prospector make it? Does he live? In the final, savage confrontation with his nemesis, the wolf, is he victorious? Or is he overcome and eaten by the beast within sight of deliverance?
Love of Life, The Movie
The Starving Wolf
Although I won't tell you if the embattled prospector lives or is eaten by the wolf, I will say that, believe it or not, this story has a somewhat humorous ending. I only mention it to again draw attention to how skillful Jack London's writing is. After horrifying us with a journey of unthinkable, nightmarish obstacles, he makes us laugh. Reward yourself and read this story. It comes in a collection of other great stories, each one a testimony to great writing.