But, piratical behavior is a key part of the book's plot. The story traces the exploits of Humphrey Van Weyden, a man of "letters" not the sea, and what happens when he is snatched from the water by the crew of the Ghost, a 90-foot seal hunting schooner, after his ferry sinks in San Francisco Bay. Van Weyden begins meek and subdued (although intellectually arrogant), but he is soon transformed by the crude, ruthless, violent, highly intelligent and surprisingly intellectual Captain of the Ghost, Wolf Larsen.
The book follows Van Weyden's evolution from meek nerd to "take charge" leader, tempered only by the love for an equally headstrong woman (Maude). Wolf Larsen (the "sea wolf") is the only figure that towers over everything and everyone on the schooner.
More than one reader will likely identify with Van Weyden's reluctant and foreboding admission midway through the book:
"One thing I was beginning to feel, and that was that I could never again be quite the same man I had been. While my hope and faith in human life still survived Wolf Larsen's destructive criticism, he had nevertheless been a cause of change in minor matters. He had opened up for me the world of the real, of which I had known practically nothing and from which I had always shrunk. I had learned to look more closely at life as it was lived, to recognize that there were such things as facts in the world, to emerge from the room of mind and idea and to place certain values on the concrete and objective phrases of existence.'
Perhaps appropriately for our times (if not London's), a subdued piratical theme is present, although it clearly isn't the colorful libertine criminality most commonly associated with the 17th century. Wolf Larsen and the Ghost are relentlessly tracked by Larsen's brother and the larger better equipped Macedonia. Larsen is a skilled seal tracker, and his brother poaches on the herds discovered by the Sea Wolf. This sets up a series of events that inevitably put Van Weyden and Maude on a collision course with climactic fight for survival on a deserted island (except for seals) off Japan.
London's book is written in a classic writing style. So, it will take some patience, and will challenge less experienced readers; this is definitely for the mature reader. Still, we haven't run across many books that are as richly textured and layered as The Sea Wolf. Take the following descriptive passive as an example:
"By eleven o’clock the sea had become glass. By midday, though we were well up in the northerly latitudes, the heat was sickening. There was no freshness in the air. It was sultry and oppressive, reminding me of what the old Californians term “earthquake weather.” There was something ominous about it, and in intangible ways one was made to feel that the worst was about to come."
If that isn’t forshadowing, we don’t know what is. Throughout the book, the prose reflects London's studious approach to writing that made him the most popular author of his time. The Sea Wolf was Jack London's second novel, appearing in 1904, one year after his classic first novel The Call of the Wild. The book is a must read for London fans, those interested in deepening their own reading of classic American fiction, and those interested in a real tale of sea life at the turn of the 20th century.
What do you think?