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When the novel opens, Buck is a pampered pet living on an estate in the Santa Clara Valley region of California.  His owner, Judge Miller, is kind and provides Buck with a good life.  However, Buck is half St. Bernard and half shepherd, and his size draws the attention of Manuel, a yard worker on the estate.  The Klondike gold rush creates a huge demand for dogs capable of pulling sleds, and Buck’s size places him in that category.  Manuel, a gambler with outstanding debts, steals Buck and sells him for a profit to pay off his gambling debts.  Dog traders purchase Buck and transport him north, where he will be transformed from a pet to a sled dog. 

The dog traders are brutal men who beat Buck with a club, which teaches him to obey, but also teaches him to fear and disrespect men.  Despite his experience with the dog traders, Buck still expects a certain level of civility, and is totally unprepared for the conditions he finds when he arrives in the Klondike.  Curly, a dog from his ship, is attacked by a pack of huskies when she gets off the boat; the dogs kills her, and the attack makes Buck even more wary of the Klondike.

Buck’s first owners are Francois and Perrault, French Canadian mail carriers who work for the Canadian government.   They are experienced sled drivers, and they quickly help Buck transform into a sled dog.  Part of Buck’s transformation is that he becomes wilder.  He begins to trust his instincts and becomes more wolf-like.  This transformation occurs alongside a developing rivalry with Spitz, who is the leader of the pack when Buck joins it.  Spitz is a fierce dog who is driven solely by the need to survive, and while Buck does not admire Spitz, one can see how his transformation makes him more like Spitz as the novel progresses.  Buck and Spitz have several fights, and Buck eventually kills Spitz and takes over leadership of the pack.  Under Buck’s leadership, the sled team excels.  However, Francois and Perrault give the dogs to another mail carrier, who works the dogs beyond capacity, leading to the death of one of the dogs.  Once he has exhausted him, he sells the dogs to Hal, Charles, and Mercedes, three inexperienced American gold hunters.

Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are completely unprepared to drive a sled or cope with life in the wilderness.  They expect the dogs to pull too much weight, and beat the dogs to force them to pull the sled.  Even worse, they have failed to plan adequately for their journey, and they run out of food.  Some of the weaker dogs actually starve to death.  By the time the team reaches John Thornton’s camp, their numbers have dwindled from fourteen to five.  Even though the Americans should have learned that they do not understand the wilderness, they demonstrate an unwillingness to listen to those with experience.  Thornton warns them that the ice is too thin to bear the weight of the sled, but Hal attempts to drive them over the ice, anyway.  Buck refuses to travel over the ice, and Hal begins to beat him.  Thornton intervenes, saving Buck’s life and cutting him free from the harness.  Hal drives the other dogs onto the ice, and the ice cracks, killing Hal and the other sled dogs. 

Buck, grateful that Thornton saved his life, proves to be a loyal dog for Thornton.  The novel has a series of events, demonstrating Buck’s devotion to Thornton.  First, he saves him from drowning, an obvious repayment from Thornton intervening to save him when Hal would have had him drown.  Then he attacks a man who attempts to pick a fight with Thornton in a bar.  However, the most dramatic example of the devotion demonstrates both Buck’s devotion to Thornton and Thornton’s faith in Buck; Thornton bets $1,600 that Buck can pull a sled carrying a 1,000-pound load, and Buck wins the bet by carrying the load. 

As Buck’s relationship with Thornton grows, he experiences conflict because he finds himself drawn more and more toward the wilderness.  The desire to go into the wild becomes greater as Buck physically travels farther away civilization.  Thornton seems to understand Buck’s need to investigate the wilderness, and he allows him the freedom to explore. During his adventures in the wild, Buck makes friends with wolves.  As much as Buck is drawn to the wilderness and to the wolves, he feels devotion to Thornton and always returns from his wanderings.  After one such adventure, Buck returns to find that a group of Yeehat Indians have attacked Thornton’s camp and killed him.  Buck seeks revenge for Thornton’s death, killing some of the Yeehats who killed Thornton.

Thornton’s death frees Buck to embrace the wild.  He enters the wilderness and joins a pack of wolves.  His transformation from pet to wild animal is so complete that he becomes the leader of the wolf pack.  He becomes a legend among men, and becomes known as Ghost Dog.  He continues to inspire fear in the Yeehats.  Buck fathers many cubs.  However, he is never totally transformed into a wild animal; each year, he returns to the site of Thornton’s death to mourn his passing.

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