I was not expected to survive my birth. These were the days when the Rh factor killed mothers and infants alike, and after nearly dying when Jim, the second oldest, was born, my mother tried to heed the advice of her doctors and stop there.
But these were also the days when birth control was unthinkable to an Irish Catholic woman. And so along came John, the third of the four boys, born happily without complications. Then I arrived.
I was complication personified.
The stakes were reversed when I came out of the womb. This time I was the one, not my mother, in peril. Our blood types were incompatible, a full body transfusion was needed as I slipped near death and my heartbeat fluttered. They kept me in the hospital six weeks—a crucial period for mother-infant bonding—and that no doubt explains at least in part the thorny relationship my mother and I shared right up until the day she passed away.
But there were days of grace between us, and more often than not they revolved around books. My mother, a devout reader, introduced me to the library before I attended kindergarten, and I still remember a dramatic image from the first mesmerizing picture book I took home: a small boat, a raging storm, a brave sailor—and his intrepid dog.
Despite my love of reading, I despised school. My brothers made their share of enemies, and I was conveniently small. But even the wrath of the bullies paled before the spiteful condemnation of the nuns and the righteous fury of Father Foley, our parish pastor. They taught me about Hell and Purgatory and sheer human meanness.
I began feigning illness, sticking my toothbrush down my throat to induce vomiting, so I could stay home, curled up in bed with my books.
My mother indulged me lavishly in this, and I soon learned to take advantage. She’d been a sickly child herself and perhaps believed this shared trait could forge a better bond between us. (I, of course, was deceitful, not sickly, but that’s another matter.)
She brought me piles of my favorites: the Hardy Boys (I read all forty-two installments in the series that existed at that time), the We Were There books (historical novels written for children with consulting experts such as Bruce Catton and Walter Prescott Webb), the Danny Dunn series (about a cagey boy inventor), and Random House history books on subjects as varied as Calamity Jane and the Marine Corps.
She even shared her own childhood favorite, The Scarlet Pimpernel. And, yes, I devoured every purple, saccharine line.
As I got older my hatred of school melted away into a sulking resignation, and I cured myself of my pseudo-afflictions. My love of reading remained, and as I turned my attention to the books the nuns assigned I still retained my association of reading with pleasure. Books were a comfort, a solace against the world.
Then I encountered Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
Through Buck, the half-Saint-Bernard-half-sheepdog abducted from his comfortable home in the Santa Clara Valley and shanghaied into slavery as a sled dog in the Klondike, I encountered an unexpected soul mate. Buck would shake me to my core, teaching me what it meant to love without sentiment. And the door to my childhood closed.
I thought I knew cruelty, but I was stunned by the thoughtless malevolence Buck endured — and overcame. I was unprepared for the endless gauntlet of trial, misfortune, and betrayal Buck suffered at the hands of one set of humans after another. And yet I was also inspired by his relentless strength and fathomless devotion to the weaker dogs in his team and ultimately to Thornton, the one man simple and decent enough to recognize Buck’s nobility.
Due to the avalanche of happy endings I’d experienced up until then, I unconsciously expected Buck and Thornton to live out their days sunnily, basking in mutual care and concern. I think I even half hoped Buck would somehow return to California, reuniting with the masters who’d loved him so, a kind of Klondike Lassie.
But that of course is not the turn of the tale. As I read of Thornton’s murder in the Indian raid my heart turned toward something it recognized but had hoped to escape: the sheer unpredictable chaos of existence, the fragility of life, the inescapable cruelty that surrounds us. I took heart in Buck’s revenge against the killers, but still held out hope of his own rescue. But this wasn’t Buck’s path. He’d already connected with that deeper urgency in his heart, and now there were no more humans to protect or obey.
Buck moves stealthily through the forest at the story’s close, the head of his pack and father of pups, but essentially alone. I saw my own future in his solitude, and felt afraid. But I also recognized the fundamental truth of the story, that cruelty forges strength, and fear is the mother of courage. Kindness must reward kindness, and greatness resides in such simple virtues as that. But the woods are deep, the nights long and dark and cold. The moon and stars are brilliant, but far away. It’s here I must live.
David Corbett is the award-winning author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running? His text on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, was published by Penguin in January 2013. David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011), and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Narrative, Zyzzyva, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. He lives in northern California. For more information, visit www.davidcorbett.com.