In the interest of full disclosure, I will start by stating that I'm a middle-aged man who never reads young adult fiction. I made an exception in this case, however, because what I do read a lot of is Jack London. So when I heard about this series so audaciously titled The Secret Journeys of Jack London, I immediately wanted to check it out to see if these books were worthy of bearing the name of their illustrious subject. Once I started reading Book One: The Wild, I was pleasantly surprised by how well written and entertaining this book is. Authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon have crafted a clever coming-of-age tale with all the characteristics of a classic London adventure.
The beginning of the story is loosely based on the actual events of London's life. Spurred on by the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, teenage Jack and his brother-in-law Shepard venture up to the Yukon Territory hoping to strike it rich. The two make it as far as Dyea, but when the ailing Shepard lays eyes on the grueling Chilkoot pass, he decides to head back to San Francisco, leaving young Jack on his own. Jack, far from disappointed at this unexpected parting of the ways, relishes his newfound independence. He soon hooks up with two companions, and together the three embark on the arduous journey up river to Dawson. From that point the plot departs from the semi-biographical narrative, and the authors take the story in a completely different and unexpected direction.
Though London was a strident Darwinist, atheist, and rationalist, he was not averse to introducing supernatural elements into his work as long as it resulted in a good story. The most obvious examples of this are his novel The Star Rover and the novella "Planchette". In this book, however, Golden and Lebbon step way beyond London's paranormal comfort zone and take it to a whole new level. Almost every chapter, much like the lion's share of young adult literature today, is loaded with supernatural occurrences and superhuman feats. The genre of wilderness adventure has all but disappeared from bookstore shelves in the past few decades, while vampires, werewolves, and zombies have multiplied like rabbits. If introducing a few monsters and spirits into the wilderness is what it takes to breathe new life into this underappreciated genre, then more power to the authors for trying. Golden and Lebbon have done their research well. Not only are they well versed in London's life and work, they also make creative use of the Native American myth of the Wendigo and the Russian folktale of the forest spirit known as the Leshii. They have created a very original story that definitely departs from London's familiar territory, yet they still manage to vividly and contagiously convey his spirit of adventure and his love for the wild.
"Young adult" is a good label for this book, as it contains quite a bit of violence and gore, and a hint of sex. It's probably too mature for a junior high audience. Hopefully this book will succeed in turning some young readers on to London's classic works like The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel. I wish the authors the best of luck with this series. This book, by the way, would make an excellent movie. It's about time Jack London became a household name again.