A Book Report and What We Know Now.

A bit of explanation: I grew up on a farm without a bookshelf. We were not readers. Once we finally got a television, there was only one channel but it had Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, disappointingly black and white in our house. I mention this because Walt’s photo is in the dictionary next to the definition of the word anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. It wasn’t just Mickey and Donald and Goofy. It was Fairy Godmothers and Princes and various rodents who were helpful with chores. How many of us lost touch with reality about then?

I graduated from cartoons to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when my father would permit, but it bored him as much as it fascinated me. I was a poor reader until I left home but I nurtured a budding love and the next few decades were spent homeschooling myself by reading books from classical literature to current Natural Book Award winners. Good years, but once I moved to the farm, my reading time evaporated. I’d crack a book in bed and read the first paragraph each night before drooling off to sleep, often reading as much as an entire page in a month. Even worse these last years, my reading time has been spent writing, and blaming myself for not reading. And we all know how time-consuming self-criticism is. 

Then in January, I gave in to a long-time fantasy. I signed up for Audible, so people could read to me. Such decadence, sometimes it’s people with an accent, but they patiently read to me at my leisure (mucking.) It isn’t revolutionary, but I’m frugal. I exchanged money for bliss. Oh my heart, forty-seven books in a half-year. Now I squander hours a day “reading.” Tossing a reckless dart at the globe and jumping centuries like a sidewalk crack, I “read” new books, non-fiction books, fat books, old-friend books that I’ve missed and want to revisit. I struggle with literary gluttony but am not guilty enough to do much but brag. I’m worse than a sullen teenager with earbuds on public transportation. I have my filling-hay-bags earbuds and my louder-than-an-ATV earbuds. I “read” voraciously now, hands-free and mind engaged.

During a recent writing workshop, I asked for book titles that had been read more than once. White Fang by Jack London was mentioned and I scribbled it down. No, I didn’t read it as a kid. For crying out loud, I didn’t see The Wizard of Oz until I was thirty. In all my catching-up, this small volume had never caught my eye but it was a freebie on Audible, so off I went to Alaska.

The first chapter of White Fang is a powerful narrative of a wolf pack that follows two hunters and their sled dog teams during a time of famine. The wolves lured the dogs away from the hunter’s camp one by one, to kill and eat them. It would be sad, but it is a dog-eat-dog world and the she-wolf is so intelligent that it’s hard to not cheer her on as she toys with the hunters, eventually managing to kill one. Scenes like this cheer a certain sort of person who has worked in rescue and feels frustration with the cruelty of her own species. 

White Fang was the only surviving pup of the she-wolf’s litter, but he grows in the wild, hunting and learning from his mother, the she-wolf-who-must-be-obeyed. But the she-wolf is half dog and when they come to an “Indian” [sic] village where her previous master is, she is silly enough to allow herself to be captured. He trades her away and White Fang is enslaved, then passed from one despicable human to another, being submissive to harsh corrections, and eventually turning angry and aggressive enough to fight dogs for human entertainment. Nearly dead from a fight, he’s rescued and rehabbed, finally to live in California where he convinces the humans he’s marginally domesticated, saves a life, and wins the name “Blessed Wolf.” Okay, the end is a bit soft but White Fang was made old by many previous injuries by then. 

Forgive my poor synopsis; I do it by design. The story isn’t as important as how it’s told. The book is brilliantly written from the point of view of the wolf-dogs, in a narrative that almost borders on being a documentary; a life as seen with the eyes and mind of White Fang. I do not say this lightly. It’s my biggest goal as an author who writes about animals to capture their language and their world. I hate anthropomorphizing any creature and salute you, Mr. London.

Disney taught us to see animals as stuffed toys. Horses and dogs especially suffer from our romantic notions and misunderstandings. We could serve them better with a truer translation, hearing less human opinions and more of theirs. We need to rest our intellectual perceptions and drop into the realm of instinct. By trying to understand the instinct of other animals, unvarnished and without apology, we might come to grips with our own predatory nature more honestly.

London tells no fairy tale. White Fang is about the collision of humans and wolves, not sweetened by saccharine Disney pastels. No spaghetti noodles are shared with a Dalmation. There are no golden retriever embraces or corgi sploots. Nothing is cute.

Jack London, 1876-1916, was known as an extremist, radical and searcher. He managed to cleanly explain the method an animal, without a frontal lobe like ours, might extrapolate from memory and make choices. Horses do that, too. As you read, you’ll also find such current hot topics as how fear-based training works, the experience of learned helplessness, affirmative training, brain science, how animals connect with humans, the power of instinct, rehabbing abused animals, and of course, calming signals. It’s a book for this era perhaps more than when it was written and is made stronger by not choosing to humanize or trivialize animals into some cheap version meant to be sweet or funny, but to respect their intelligence and instinct. London celebrates what it means to not anthropomorphize but love the wolf for his true nature. 

The experience of changing our point of view is the first step toward the goal of understanding and true empathy toward one who is other than us. Perhaps you read this book when you were younger, but with a nod of apology to the horses and dogs we have bred into compliance or altered over generations to be a caricature of what they were meant to be, read the book again with new eyes. Knowing what we know now, do your horse the favor, even if his story is the prey-opposite. But especially for the dog sleeping next to you, use the book to remind yourself part of him is still wild, Hear his calming signals and accept him for who he is.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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43 thoughts on “A Book Report and What We Know Now.”

  1. I loved Jack London’s books as a child. I was a bookworm even before I could actually read, taking my mom’s novels and scribbling in my “name” on the title page under the actual author’s name. 🙂

    You might enjoy The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – not Jack London but there’s a chapter in the book from a dog’s POV that is one of the most beautiful chapters I’ve ever read.

    I love Audible but for whatever reason it takes me much longer to get through books in that format than to read them. I enjoy listening but am too rooted in the present moment of things like mucking to stick with the book. My best Audible use is when driving for long periods, and since I don’t do that very often, it’s a rare pleasure.

    Loved your review of White Fang – it’s long past time to re-read it. Thank you!

  2. I’m sure I read it when I was a kid – theres also Watership Downs, Anna – that ones from the viewpoint of rabbits. I’m a big cryer while reading anything remotely about animals being mis-used. But I read! I sure hope the comment section works today – it hasnt up to now.

    • Thanks for commenting. It is sad to read, but life is sad sometimes. Thanks Maggie. (The tech problem should be resolved, but keep me posted if not.)

      • Yes life IS sad sometimes – but honestly, we all HAVE to see that in order to understand it. Hearing people say how awful animal abuse, horse slaughter, wild horse roundups, etc., are but “it just makes me feel so bad to look at it”? Right, and thats exactly why all of the above continues year after year. I’m one of the world’s worst softees, but you know and I know that sparing our feelings sure doesnt change anything.
        And yes, seems the tech problem is resolved – I can go back to older blogs & read the comments now. Which I do quite often!

  3. My study of wolves began 55 years ago. My house is filled with art and photos. My bookshelves are replete with books by those who have taught me about this beautiful animal. I will never stop learning. I loved your story and recently re-read White Fang myself (coincidence).

    • Thanks, Chaz. I’m not surprised we share a fascination with wolves and dogs. If only horses were as easy to understand.

  4. “Hear his calming signals and accept him for who he is.” Isn’t that what all of us human beans want? We want to be heard and we want to live OUR life as we choose to live it, for better or worse. Not unlike the loud battle cry of a misunderstood teenager demanding to be heard, they scream in the only ways they know and like that misunderstood teen, they are labeled as bad, problematic and even dangerous. Sadly, unlike that teenager who will one day rule their own destiny, domesticated animals are at our mercy until they are released from this world. Geez Anna, sometimes becoming enlightened really weighs heavy on the soul.

    On the bright side of enlightenment, I get a new foster horse this weekend and I can’t wait to let him know I’m listening. I thank you for that!

    • Yes, acknowledgment is the whole thing. Thanks Sueann. Maybe our success isn’t as important to them as us trying… Give that new foster a big fat exhale from me.

  5. I read Call of the Wild this year too. Was rather shocked and realized that my relationship with animals has changed from when I was a kid. I read all those books as a kid without the sadness I felt this year. Can’t say why but as a kid of our generation we were more realistic about animals. We raised some rabbits that were pets but ended up on dinner tables without second thoughts.
    I was a Disney addict too but must’ve known the difference.
    The sadness I felt after reading Jack London this year bothered me. I think we have gotten too soft and unrealistic. Of course I then watched the movie Call of the Wild made a few years ago. Wondered how they would end it and wasn’t surprised they ended it on a better note. They sure didn’t want to show the Indians as cold blooded killers. Of course the dog was a lot sweeter and fluffier than the book too.
    Thanks for the perspective.

  6. This is far from the subject on this blog but then again maybe not! Axel (dog) found a baby bird last night – fell out of his nest – seemingly no parents & he makes NO sounds. The nest looks to be way up in the tree – one other baby was dead on the ground. So brought him/her in & mixed up some dog food & water into a mush & so far the little guy is eating & pooping. Its been a bit like teaching a human baby to feed itself – anyone here remember what a mess that was like? So I hear him scratching around in the box & its time to start again – the syringe I’m using is a little sticky so the bird, the counter, & pretty much the area get blasted with this mess. Sure is entertaining. Went online & apparently no wildlife rehab people anywhere around. I have NEVER had any luck with wild baby birds – if by chance anyone here has any tidbits, knowledge etc – I’d love to hear it!
    Horses, with all their issues (colic, founder, abscesses etc) were easier!

  7. Thank you, Anna. This is a wonderful read. My only connection these days is to respond to petitions calling for the protection of the wolf. After reading your essay, I will have renewed vigor in my empathy for them as well as all wildlife that I never will see in person. It will be enough to know that they still have a place on this earth to live out their lives as nature intended.

  8. I was lucky to have a mother who took us kids weekly to the Children’s Library at the Denver Public Library. So I have always been a reader. Since I travel 45 mins to my boarding stable, I discovered ebooks on Libby and finally succumbed to Kindle. Wonderful! Like listening to a play! I will reread White Fang. Books change as we change through life. My recent author is Catherine Ryan Hyde. She has interesting characters.

  9. “We were wild, once. Then we discovered you had couches.”
    I am constantly amused by the “wildness” that shows every so often in my very tame and loyal canines.
    I do not have a dominant personality, so the mares have been partners for a long while, but you have encouraged me to be a better “listener”. So many nuances to their oh so very subtle conversations.

  10. I am reading a book now called “Horse Brain, Human Brain” by Dr. Janet Jones (a phD neuroscientist & Grand Prix horse trainer). She does an excellent job of explaining how horses perceive the real world through each of their senses and then goes on to explain how they process this information and how it relates to humans. It is a deep eye-opener about the reasons for horses actions. Sh also goes on to give many exercises for riders to improve the proprioception of their bodies on a horse to be more stabilized and fluent. This is truly the White Fang, educated, version of animal – horse – insight.

    • Thanks, Barbara. It’s a good book, especially in the chapters about the horse’s senses. Brain science should be proof that kind training is effective.

  11. This is slightly off subject but one of the saddest things I have seen is when passing the local very posh equestrian centre. An afternoon of painting mini ponies and dying their manes to look like a “my little pony”. I was appalled. The little children were about 5 years old. To me that was turning a living creature into a breathing Disney toy. I was truly disgusted. How else could a five year old see anything else. What a message to give.

    At the age I am I thought there was little still left to shock and disapoint me but that certainly did. I felt like screaming at the staff ” they are not stuffed toys bought in a toy store!!!!!!” They wouldnt have listened. They regularily ride past my place. They think i am as one apparently said “way weird”. Due it was said because i run about in the school with my horse (liberty), ride bitless ( how on earth do you control that horse) and have been seen riding bare back. Oh and as my horse is barefoot i should not be riding him on tarmac roads. They are sure his feet will fall apart. Sorry rant over. But i know you girls will understand.

    • Thank you “way weird” June. I come apart when I see photos, meant to be cute, of painted horses. I feel as you do, it is beyond disrespectful, but have been corrected that I care too much for the horse, by trainers. Who might be even more appalling than the behavior.

  12. Joined audible in 2016 (and have racked up 416 books – it’s not bragging if you put it in parentheses ;D)

    I justify the expense. It allows my mind to freely roam and grow while doing repetitive jobs that no longer require much thinking. Another bonus is no need to cut down trees. The best kind of multi-tasking. And don’t get me started on lovely accents… especially the Scottish ones. ❤️

    A few recommendations: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, and everything by Michael Pollan starting with The Botany of Desire.

  13. Thank you, Anna, for this delightful reminder of the Jack London books I loved so much as a teen-ager. ( Hope you allow yourself to read “The Call of the Wild” too !!) Sure glad you signed up for Audible . I think I need to go back and re-read “White Fang.” I can see my beat up paperback I had back then.

    I imagine those books would be quite different now, 50 +years later, and with a bit more wisdom about instinctual behaviors. It seems to me maybe my cats are still fairly “wild” in many ways.

    Grateful for you and your writings more than you know.

    • Thanks, Sarah. And cats live in some undomesticated realm very different than other animals… some other kind of wild.

  14. My daughter gave me a month’s subscription to Audible last year, just to see if I would like “reading” that way (she can’t stand it, must have the book in her hand and have the voices be her own). OH MY! I’ve finally found something to make ANY chore (except LOUD ones of course) on the farm be more enjoyable and take less perceived time.

    I didn’t read White Fang as a child so shall as an adult. Thanks for the vivid book report!

    Cheers, always,

  15. I cannot begin to tell you how this article hit me at my very core on so many levels. Though I love everything you share, from beginning to end, I felt as if you wrote it speaking directly to me. Thank-you so very much for how you relate and weave awareness into our hungry minds. I am considering audible now because my scenario is like yours. I have always been intrigued by Jack London but missed reading White Fang, I am writing fact-based fiction with the intention of focusing on “learned helplessness” in horses and I constantly observe and respect the perspective of “the other”, be it human, horse, dog, and cat. I’m so touched.

  16. Hi Anna — I love the image of you “reading” while cleaning stalls and being amongst your herd. For me, before White Fang or Call of the Wild or Black Beauty, I read Beautiful Joe and my life was changed. I guess it set me up for any harshness in every other book I read. It sure set me up to challenge things I did not like, and it started me “training” dogs, and taking two handfuls of them at a time for walks in Alaska. They didn’t get in as much trouble if they were walked and exercised (nor did I!).

    Keep us posted with what you read. Its astounding to me that you are just now like that kid in the candy shop — free to “read” to your heart’s content!

    • Sherry, I’d love to see you walking handfulls in Alaska… great vision. I do love Audible, I think it’s the only thing that has ever increased my time!

    • I remember having Beautiful Joe – another weepy one – so much abuse. But really good book. Now I’m wondering where all THOSE books are! I have boxes that I never unpacked plus the 2 bookcases full. But then I go back & re-read most of them several times over. Then there were the Walter Farley Black Stallion books. I think I had most of them & passed some on to nieces, maybe?

      By the way, baby bird still with me – named Squirt (you can imagine why). Three days & counting. Seems dog food & water mush appeal to him , plus some hard-boiled egg yolks – as long as I can push them thru a syringe. Hes small, but a challenge.

  17. Thank you for your book report on White Fang, it was wonderful and convinced me I must try out Audible. The only books I remember reading as a child were by Jack London. About 10 years ago waiting in line at the $1 store on the shelf was a CD of Call of the Wild. I have listened to it several times since and yes as an adult I view it in very different eyes. Call of the Wild lead me to acquire a German Shepherd right out of high school and eventually raise and train them for over 35 years. My last male was named “Buck.”


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