Friday, June 17, 2011

To Build a Fire

by Pa Rock
Dedicated Reader

One of the classes that I enjoyed most in high school was English (long before it was “language arts”) where every year we were treated to alternating quarters of writing and grammar followed by literature.  In the writing and grammar quarters we learned – actually learned -  things like subject-verb agreement, starting sentences with a capital letter and ending them with a piece of appropriate punctuation, sentence structure (through diagramming), and how to build a complete paragraph – one that carried and finished a thought.  I found that stuff fascinating.

But I always looked forward to the literature quarters.  Our literature books were big and bulky and packed with magic.  One quarter each year we would tackle something substantive such as Silas Marner, Great Expectations, or the god-awful Julius Caesar.   (Shakespeare wrote some great things – Hamlet, for example, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Taming of the Shrew – but why would anyone try to foster a love of the Bard in high school students with Julius Caesar?  Yet forty plus years ago, that was the play most often used to introduce young minds to Shakespeare.)

The other literature quarter focused on poetry and short stories.    It was in those quarters that I learned to love the quaint New England of Robert Frost, the crazy family of James Thurber, and the killing cold of Jack London’s frozen northland.  In fact, it was works of those three authors that I remember best from high school:  Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Thurber’s The Night the Bed Fell on Father (both mentioned previously in this space), and Jack London’s savage tale of the triumph of nature over man – To Build a Fire.

This morning while sitting in my car reading before work, I had the chance to revisit To Build a Fire, which although not a mystery story, was included in the June 2011 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine as a “classic” short story.    The piece was selected and introduced by author Martin Limon who, like me, first encountered it in a high school English class.    In describing his initial reaction to the story, Limon said, 

“Nothing had prepared me for such complete immersion.  Nothing has prepared me for a writer who could grab me by my teenage neck and yank me into a new world.  Nothing had prepared me for Jack London.”

The man, the dog, and the Yukon on a day when the sun would not shine and the temperature was seventy-five degrees below zero.   To Build a Fire is not a fanciful tale.  It is realism at its most real and serves to remind us that in the end nature always prevails.  That, I think, is a good thing.

(Note:  My high school teacher was Jennibel Paul.   The writing skills that she taught have served me well throughout life, and it was by her efforts that I developed a love of reading and good literature.  Mrs. Paul was a terrific teacher!)


Brenda Kilby said...

J.P. was OK. Terrific, no. You see, she had to like you first. Then, if she liked you, you got kudos. If she didn't like you, fuggetaboutit.
It also helped to be male.
it helped tremendously. Now, I'm not saying I hated her or anything. I just didn't find her as great as you did. I'm sure context is everything. Most of my time in the school system is similar to stories of being in prison. I really hated school at Noel and at Anderson. But I was a difficult child, too. I wouldn't want to have me. LOL

Brenda Kilby said...

I have to add this: at least I wasn't tempted to plant wolf bane on her grave like I was some others I had at Noel. LOL