Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Ice Age Cometh

!SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't, but plan to read To Build a Fire by Jack London, please know that this post is about my visceral and psychic reaction to it and contains definite spoilers. If you don't mind the spoilers, read on. If you do, click here to read his short story (it takes only 10-15 minutes, maybe 20), then come back to process your own reaction by reading about mine and leaving us a comment. 

Thank you for stopping by. Please enjoy...

Staring out the window, I watch fat snowflakes land on the mound in front of my apartment. As each conglomeration tumbles before sticking, my mind turns to one of my favorite movies. A work of fiction, Day After Tomorrow is woven around fact and depicts the coming of a new Ice Age. Before the Big Freeze, there is day-upon-day of relentless snowfall in the northern (and not-so northern) regions.

This is what is happening now, and I can't help but compare. Places with normally-mild winters, like Boise, Idaho, where I currently reside, are getting pounded. And have been for thirty-plus days. On the other side of the globe, normally-sunny Greece is blanketed in snow.

My mind jumps to a short story by Jack London that I recently read for a creative writing class. Other than research, I rarely watch or read what I believe will be a downer. If there is no redemption, no deliverance, no life-affirming message, then what, pray tell, is the point?

To Build a Fire is London's short story about a foolish man in the Klondike. He ignores common sense and an old-timer's warning to take a shortcut to his gold-mining camp. He's on foot and alone except for an Alaskan Husky that (like me) doesn’t particularly care for the man. It's nearing winter in that Arctic tundra—the sun is scarce and the temperature often plummets to seventy-below.

The story is an account of arrogance gone awry, and as I read, my apprehension grows. Something awful is going to happen, and the man will likely die. The more I read, the sicker my gut feels until I can taste the metal of dread. 

I plod on, as assigned, though I hate each beautiful, well-placed word the man 'speaks' in his head. When he takes a step, breaking through snow and ice, and his whole foot sinks into a running stream, I know (because of London's masterful foreshadowing) the time has come. And even knowing, I wish for the best for this arrogant man.

London describes in acute detail the progression of hypothermia as observed by the man, one frozen body-part at a time. I felt it all—his numbness, fear, panic, his futile attempts to light a match and tinder, only to have his one chance at survival snuffed out.

Then his quick descent into apathy, eyeing the dog and considering slitting it open for his own survival, the dog backing away because he doesn’t trust this man. Then his surrender, succumbing to the coming of death, and its gentle kiss as he falls 'asleep'.

I hated this story, hated and loved it at the same time, because of Jack London’s literary genius.

In sharing my reaction and pondering the point of this awful (and beautiful) story with Debbie, my teacher and new friend, she posited that since it was written during the Alaskan gold rush, it was likely meant as a warning to foolhardy souls heading to the Klondike. A preview of what to expect. That I can wrap my head around. That I get.

But back to the snow falling outside my window and mounded halfway up the Handicapped sign. As one who always looks for the 'why' in things, I had wondered why I continued to read a story that left me feeling icky and cold. Especially in the middle of my first frozen winter.

That 'why' occurs to me now.

Maybe I read London’s dark narrative, in spite of my own rules, because a new Ice Age cometh and I need to know. I will now recognize the signs of fatal hypothermia, and maybe find comfort when I face surrender to my own frozen limbs and halting heart.

Or maybe it will be another millennium before the next Ice Age, and it was merely an excellent assignment designed to further open this writer's mind to the power of narrative prose.

Either way, the snow sure is pretty.

What are YOUR thoughts on London's short story?

That Rebel, Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré

O.J. Barré is the author of the Awen trilogy. Book One, Awen Rising, is in final edits. The first draft of Book Two, Awen Storm, is nearing completion, and Book Three, Awen Tide, is swirling in the mists of creation. UPDATE: as of December 2020, the first two books have been published and the third is scheduled to be released Summer 2021. Click the links to view their respective pages on Amazon.


Debra said...

I'm experiencing the same winter, and having also read "To Build A Fire," I thought of it many times. On Jan. 5, a weatherman told us to be prepared in case the power went out in the next expected storm. On Jan. 6, I bundled up and dragged a wheelbarrow across our large backyard to a forsaken, forgotten woodpile for wood to burn in our fireplace in case of a power outage. My feet sunk into snow as high as my knees, and I could only pile a certain amount of wood in the plastic barrow before it sunk too deeply to be pulled. I made three trips across the yard, huffing and puffing, white hair escaping my woolen cap, thinking of that crazy short story. I wasn't so sure that I wouldn't end up like the protagonist! :) The reason I love that depressing bit of fiction is because hubris is my greatest fault-- and London speaks to man's hubris, which sometimes gets humbled when we experience an act of God like severe weather. Does it make us bitter or better?
Do we heed the many warnings that life gives us? (and London masterfully shares those, building us up many timers, as you've said here.) It wouldn't have been a powerful story if the protagonist, at any point, had conquered his pride. And yet if I get the takeaway that I need to be more responsive to voices that would guide me better than my own selfish one--then the story has succeeded. BTW so many students really hate this story that I may not assign it again!

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

Debbie, thank you so much for stopping by and reading my piece! I love that you also thought of Mr. London's treatise as you slogged back and forth in the snow. You're right about the message(s), of course. Please keep assigning it because, if nothing else, it definitely makes one think AND it has stayed with me, long after I put it down. Only a masterful work tends to do that and what you do, teaching us writers to write, is important. It's good for us to know that we say matters. And to make be honest and make every word count.

Looking forward to our book club in a couple of weeks!

That Rebel, Olivia

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

Hmm, those typos weren't there a minute ago, I swear!!! :D

Debra said...

It’s fun to revisit your piece! The student has certainly outrun the teacher in this case, and that’s fine. I’m learning great things from you. I’ve been reading “Awen Storm” tonight and you plunge the reader into action on the first page!

O. J. Barré said...

Dearest Debbie, how did I miss this comment back in 2019? I do not know, but I'm happy to read it today as I also revisited this piece.

Sending love and hugs, Olivia

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...