This week I took a detour from the usual weird short fiction and went back to a classic. I think the last time I read “To Build a Fire” was in middle school English—I have distinct memories of some of the kids in class thinking the expression “like a chicken with its head cut off” was just hilarious. You can read the short story for free here…
I really enjoyed this short story! If you’ve never read it, the premise is that a man and his dog are traveling through the Yukon in temperatures of seventy-five below. The MC is quite arrogant, and his actions lead him to have problems starting a fire. It’s a classic man versus nature tale, where you’re just waiting for the foolhardy MC to get his comeuppance. I already knew what was going to happen, so basically just spent the first bit waiting for everything to go to pieces.
Really I read this because I’ve been working on my WIP, and the MC confronts a dangerous blizzard early on in the book. It’s nice to see how a master storyteller like London tackles a similar topic, in terms of the observations and details. It was also just a nostalgic read; this story may be more than a hundred years old, but it definitely holds up, despite one instance of racial language that would never fly in the here and now. Just as I’m not going to dismiss Lovecraft for the infamously named cat in “The Rats in the Walls,” so too am I not going to dismiss London. Hope that makes sense, though others might feel differently.
Anyway, I recommend this short story and had a fun time reading it, even though it’s very different from the other short fiction I’ve been reading lately. It’s the kind of short story that really sticks with you once you’ve read it, so for that I can only give it five stars. 🙂
2 thoughts on “Short Tuesday #23: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London”
I stumbled across this one on my own when about middle school age. It really scared me.
I believe one major theme of London’s is how people tend to go out into the wilderness without knowing what they are doing, and then they end up dying and basically deserve it. What scared me so much about this one – besides the matter-of-fact horror – was that the MC was clearly far more tough and brush-savvy than I am, and yet the Yukon still got him. And so quickly.
My MCs, too, spend a lot of time out in the brush, and it’s a major fear of mine that I will make some egregious error of fact and people who actually know what they are doing out in the wilderness will catch me out in it. It’s like being a crime writer and knowing nothing about handguns.
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I feel you so much in terms of being scared of making errors! My current WIP has the main character living in Montana and having a bit of experience with hunting… I have never been to Montana, nor have I hunted. So it’s been a lot of Internet research, and maybe I’ll run those parts by a hunter when the manuscript’s complete!
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