It seems the modern trend in short stories is to pitch something that makes you question and think. And the story To Build a Fire certainly makes you think. But it is also one heck of a gripping tale. Jack London doesn’t make a good tourism advertiser though for the Yukon trail. Possibly because the author lived and worked in the Klondike in 1897.
A man sets out with his husky dog along the trail on a -75 degree Faherient (-60C) day. It is colder than anything he has experienced before, and his dog certainly knows it’s not a good idea for them to be out and about, but the man presses on. He is walking along the top of a frozen creek, but there are parts where springs push non frozen water up, forming pockets which one can fall through. Unfortunately this happens to the man, and he winds up falling through up to his knees. The water will turn into ice and stop his walking, so once he gets out, he has to start a fire to melt the extra weight off his legs. His entire life depends of lighting the fire, but his fingers have gone numb. He is barely able to hold the matches. He is so desperate, at one stage he thinks of killing his dog and thrusting his hands inside into its intestines to warm them up. Does he manage to get the fire going and save his life? What do you think?
This is a terrific story, man vs. wild style, from the days before Bear Grylls taught us all what we’re meant to do in such situations. Jack London may seem to be a tough sort of guy, but he doesn’t thrust a masculine message on us. Even though the main character thinks that the old prospector who had warned him against travelling alone at such temperatures is ‘womanly’ for his concern, the main character reconsiders the man’s advice as he comes nearer and nearer to freezing to death.
Whenever I’m procrastinating (which I seem to have down to an art form) I should think about how hard Jack London worked on his stories. He is the ultimate model of disadvantage and hard work, at least for a white male of the species. Whenever I am slacking off, I should remind myself, what would Jack London do?
As copyright has lapsed on the story, you can find it near anywhere on the net. Below is a link if you want to read the story.