Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Ice Age Cometh

!SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't, and plan to, read To Build a Fire, by Jack London, please know that this post is about my visceral and psychic reaction and contains definite spoilers. If you don't mind, read on. If so, click here to read his short story (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 a favorite movie. 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) regions.

This 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 piece by Jack London 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's 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 man in the Klondike who 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 a husky that (like me) doesn’t particularly like the man. It's nearing winter in the Arctic, so the sun is scarce, and the temp plummets to seventy-below.

The story is an account of arrogance gone awry and as I read, my apprehension grows. Something bad is going to happen and the man will likely die. The more I read, the sicker my gut, until I 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 masterful foreshadowing) the time has come. (And even knowing, I wish for the best.)

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, the futile attempts to light a match and tinder, only to have his one chance at survival snuffed out. Then the quick descent into apathy, eyeing the dog considering slitting it open for his own survival, the dog backing away because he doesn’t trust the arrogant man.

Then surrender, acquiescing to the coming of death, and its gentle kiss as he falls asleep.

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

In sharing this with Debbie, my teacher (and now friend), she pondered that if 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 upon arrival. That I can wrap my head around. That I get.

But back to the snow falling outside my window and the mound halfway-up the Handicapped sign. As one who looks for the "why" in things, I wondered at the time why I continued to read a story that left me icky and cold.

It 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 needed to know. I will recognize the signs of fatal hypothermia and find comfort when I succumb to frozen limbs and halted heart.

Or maybe it will be millennia 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 Blessed Are the Peace Makers trilogy. Book One, Coming Home, is in final edits. The first draft of Book Two, Coming To, is nearing completion and Book Three, Coming Full Circle, is swirling in the mists of creation.


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!

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