Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Number 5

"To Build a Fire" a short story by Jack London, first published in 1908, is the fourth story that helped inspire East Garrison. It's about an inexperienced protagonist, accompanied only by a dog, who struggles unsuccessfully to save himself from freezing to death after a series of mishaps across the Yukon Territory near Alaska. London brilliantly depicts themes of fear, death, and man versus nature. Written with short, to-the-point sentences, the story paints the stark, harsh setting extremely well, and tells a simple, moving tale of a man's foolishness in trying to survive against an adversary, nature, over which he has no control. I simply love this story.

In some ways, the protagonist in "To Build a Fire" is a lot like my character Jack in East Garrison. At first he is filled with the arrogance of his assurance that he is capable of surviving an extremely cold, dangerous journey with just a dog for companionship, even when he'd been warned by an old-timer that "when it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire," and also that "no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below." But he believes "any man who was a man could travel alone." Eventually, when the man builds a fire and it gets put out because he foolishly built it underneath a snow-covered tree branch, he thinks, "The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right…after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner." Soon after, in the end, as he's falling into a deep sleep from which he'll never awake, he says, "You were right, old hoss; you were right."

I wanted to reproduce something of the unforgiving environment of London's story, but East Garrison cannot compare to Alaska in any way. Instead, I compromised by adding a situation of life and death with a baby newly born after an animal attack, and then the mother's need to survive to keep her baby alive. For her to do this she resorts to doing something that most people have never heard of a woman doing, but it is something people actually do even when they are nowhere near the kind of desperate situation I put Tracy and her newborn in. This particular scene has been mentioned to me many times; Some people hate it, some love it, and others merely mention the fact to me I guess as a "conversation starter." When it came to writing that particular scene, it was never a question of whether or not to put it in. It was just something that Tracy did to survive. I imagined that would be what any mother would do. In the animal world, it is what mothers do. I apologize to those who don't get that. Look it up.

If you have not read "To Build a Fire," google it. You can read it numerous places online. The story is merely 12 pages, but it's gold, pure gold.

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