Over 40 short, dazzling years of life, Jack London proved his genius for reinvention. At 14, he was a “beast” in a West Oakland cannery, working 14 hours a day for 10 cents an hour. By 15, he had joined a gang of oyster pirates, raiding the East Bay’s richly stocked beds, where he might “get shot or arrested.”
Taking his place among the wharf’s “rough men, big and unafraid … some of them ex-convicts, all of them enemies of the law,” London quickly turned himself into a skilled and fearless small-craft sailor, and subsequently shipped out for seven months aboard a sealing schooner heading to the Bering Sea. Before he turned 20, he had tramped across the United States, spent 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy (“It was a living hell, that prison”), and prospected for gold in the Klondike, where the temperatures hit a brisk 67 degrees below zero.
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Jack London: An American Life
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30