Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review of The Valley Of The Moon by Jack London

Jack London never fired blanks. There isn’t a book of his that I’ve read where he isn’t trying to mortally wound a lazy convention, a notion taken for granted, or what often passes for common sense. London’s exhortation is always, in my words, “Think! Act! Live to the fullest!” He believes in the power of the will and body, and despises those who fear their own breath fogging the mirror. One of my favorite lines from his works, “I'd rather sing one wild song and burst my heart with it, than live a thousand years watching my digestion and being afraid of the wet.” Pretty much sums him up.

That being said, Valley Of the Moon definitely was London-esque, but it wasn’t my favorite for a few reasons. There weren’t as many good one-liners. He took too long telling the story. The plot became too swollen with needless details about how his characters were outsmarting everybody else. Of course, to be fair, it was written as a kind of manual for people in his time to know how to escape their situation.  But I’m not them. They can write their own reviews and give him 5 stars if they want to. Oh wait, they’re dead.

So, the protagonists in this story were Californian urbanites, mired in hand-to-mouth living, and finally having their financial Achilles-heel snipped by a union strike that embroils them in riots, incarceration, and an widening distance from each other in their marriage. The beginning of the book is heavily steeped in mawkish romance between the characters: “I love you more! No, I love you more!” It starts feeling like the story is about to end 100 pages in. Everything is so perfect. Sickeningly so. Come on, London! Send a plague or something! If I’m going to read 400 more pages of this, I need a plague or some severed limbs…something!

So, half-way through the book it gets really interesting. Everything’s calculated to dump old-timey religion, antiquated values, and dumb sense halfway through the book. It’s a Jack London signature move: skinning the weak and boring, and re-fleshing them with something more, well, readable. The heroine, Saxon, finally hits rock-bottom (thank you Jack), starts wading out into the San Francisco bay to collect mussels to eat so she doesn’t starve. Her man is incarcerated for nearly crushing a man’s skull. Their neighbors are afraid, and people are getting stalked and killed over the scarcity of employment. Then suddenly, struck with a new vision of freedom, Saxon and Billy let go of their choked, wheezing pittance of the city-life, and go on the road with just their backpacks and a little bit of cash. Bravo!

To be sure, initially there appears to be some white-supremacy overtones in the story, but this actually turns into high praise for Hispanics and Asians who are smart, hard workers and have progressed further than whites because of their ingenuity and courage…two qualities London extols above all others. So, was he really a supremacist, or merely calling for whites to catch up to their hardworking brothers-from-other-mothers? I’ll bet that London was probably most in love with his own self and his hard body, and tended to dwell on people and ancestry that resembled his narcissistic self. Even Saxon’s name referred to past Anglo honor and grit up to the early days of pioneering. But I have to hand it to this heroine; she was a boss! A master of herself and others. She drew on her inner reserves, and “she rebelled…fluttered and beat her soul against the hard face of things as did the linnet against the bars of wire…She did not belong in the trap.  She would fight her way out of the trap… It was the stupid that remained and bowed their heads to fate.” She was independent and emanated love and concern for others, but she had a commanding aspect to her that enabled her to take the reins from her husband when he became abusive and began to neglect himself and his family. She singlehandedly created a life-strategy during a period of want, led her family out of Oakland with the marvelous slogan, “Oakland’s just a place to start from”, slept on the ground, went without food, humbled herself to demeaning roles to survive financially, and ultimately guided others around her to live out their strengths and make a better life together with her. Such a powerful example of a proud and noble woman.

Of course, the characters are WAY too lucky, and it doesn’t help matters that even the title of the book signifies a utopian ideal that is impossible to realize. But I’ll be darned if our heroes don’t actually find a spot in California that fits their dream and is actually called The Valley Of the Moon (Sonoma Valley)! Seriously? Whatever happened to the line from the book, “I don’t want to dream…I want things real!” I’ll tell you what happened. London went out playing with the butterflies again instead of writing us a book that helps the rest of us who haven’t yet found the greener grass, and may never. Geez, thanks Mr. “just-giving-you-the-hardcore-truth-so-you-can-learn-to-live-better-and-smarter-and-not-in-a-fairy-tale-land-that-will-ultimately-leave-you-bleeding-in-a-hole-somewhere”!! Yeah, thanks Jack…for a friggin’ lot of JACK SQUAT!!

But I still love him. Overall a good story, good points; just took too long.