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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Revisited Light: Call of the Wild

In one of many obtuse "teaching" moments, I asked a sophomore English class at Napa Valley's Vintage High to write a letter to a teacher they would like to thank. My assumption? Every kid had one teacher who was special in his or her life. At the time, mid-70s, the Napa Tax Association (think early Tea Party) had a 'letter to the editor' campaign going about teachers getting paid during their long summer vacations. My spontaneous idea to thank a teacher was probably a reaction to outrageous claims of old grumpy men that district teachers were overpaid.

My assignment was a flop. Few students could think of a teacher. How could that be? I had so many to thank from first grade through college. One was my freshman English teacher at Fullerton High in Orange County, California. Through the years I heard his name in memory as Mr. Flutterjohan. Yesterday I looked in the FUHS 1958 yearbook and saw the correct spelling for this fine Nordic gentleman: Mr. Fledderjohann. I thank him because he taught me not to flutter and flit through what I read. From him I learned that speed reading (think Evelyn Wood) was not for 'real' literature. Call of the Wild needed to be read more than once, if not several times. I admit to no recollection of what Mr. Fledderjohann told the class about Jack London. Later, living a decade in the Napa Valley, I visited Jack London State Park, not far from Napa, saw the ruins of Wolf House, London's house that burned just before his occupancy of it. Three years after the fire, an ill and dispirited London died at age 40 in 1916. But consider this salient fact: Call of the Wild has been in print since 1903 and has sold over seven million copies.

The novel's main character is Buck, a canine. Yet Buck is not a plot device like Jack, the faithful sheep dog, in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. Buck is Jack London's hero. Although advertisers and commencement speakers have turned 'life's journey' into a cliché, this was not true in 1958 when Mr. Fledderjohann introduced this literary archetype. The hero must leave home, struggle for survival, prove himself/herself, and die to be reborn. In Buck's case, he returns to his nature as a wolf in the wilderness. In the mid-80s, while watching The Power of Myth: the memorable PBS series of Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, I thought of Mr. Fledderjohann, imagined that he was listening to Campbell and Moyers. This astute teacher showed me that an invisible plane supports the visible one; that meaning in a work of literature would not be discovered without a meeting of inner and outer worlds, that intelligence of heart would mean answering the mythic call to a place unbounded by fixity of mind. A powerful message during the conforming Happy Day Fifties beneath that ominous mushroom cloud.

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