Turning Stones - George McKale


A glimpse of London’s genius

Though “Call of the Wild” is required reading for the Valley’s eighth grade students, many people I run into seem to have forgotten that the author, Jack London, lived for a time just up the road.  This week I bring to you a page in the life of Mr. London.  The following lines portrayed his “cool, grey city of love,” San Francisco, but I like to think of Sonoma as the recipient of such prose.

At the end of our streets is sunrise;

At the end of our streets are spars;

At the end of our streets is sunset;

At the end of our streets-the stars.

Brewing before he was even born, London had a troubled life. He was born in San Francisco in 1876, to an Irish astrologer, William Chaney.  Because civil records were destroyed from the 1906 earthquake, it is unclear whether Chaney and Flora Wellman, London’s mother, were married. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article dated June 4, 1875, Chaney, upon hearing of Flora’s pregnancy, demanded an abortion.  Chaney declared that he would have nothing to do with the unborn child.

Flora was devastated and shot herself.  Flora survived and while recovering, hired a former slave, Virginia Pentiss, to take care of the newborn child.  In fact, Ms. Prentiss would be an influential figure throughout London’s short life.  After London was born, Flora married John London.  John fought in the civil war and came down with measles and bouts of pneumonia, leaving him with one functioning lung.

The young baby was also named John, but later became known as Jack.  The family moved from San Francisco and eventually settled in Oakland.  Jack went to college at the University of California, Berkeley, where he began to conduct research on his past.  Like Pandora’s box, his research revealed a troubled past.  He read accounts of his mother’s attempted suicide and eventually wrote to William Chaney who was living in Chicago.

Chaney did not mince words, telling Jack that he could not be his biological father, as he was impotent.  He also indicated that his mother had numerous sexual relations with other men.  He also told Jack that the remarks made by Flora regarding William’s insistence for her to get an abortion, amounted to nothing less than slander.  London was devastated and within months, quit school, packed his bags and headed to gold country.

Given the year was 1897,, the gold rush to which I am referring was the Klondike, way up north in frosty Alaska.  London’s sister and brother-in-law loaned him money, and he boarded a steamer for the frigid unknown, prepared to stay for one year in this very foreign environment. London arrived in the fall of 1897.

Reportedly, 100,000 men tried to make it to the remote areas of the Yukon.  Of these, only 30,000 were successful, most exhausted and overwhelmed by the daunting journey.  London made it all the way, and while he did not strike it rich or find the mother lode, he honed his skills as a writer, detailing the day to day hardships of those seeking fortune in the Alaskan wilderness.  From his experiences in Alaska, Call of the Wild was born.

We sometimes miss great resources in our own back yard.  Jack London State Historic Park is an absolute treasure and a great place to visit with the family.  While roaming around the beautiful oak -studded hills of Sonoma, visitors will learn more about London and the “Beauty Ranch.”  London lived at the site from 1905 until his death in 1916.  The park is located in Glen Ellen and is now run by an element of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association. Go!

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