Starting Fire

The Best Fire Story Ever Told

Jack London’s "To Build a Fire" scared me into adolescence.

At some point, my sixth grade English teacher peered over her desk at the simple, unformed minds entrusted to her and thought: “I must destroy them.” This is the only way I can reconcile assigning Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire to students then steeped in a reading curriculum designed to reinforce a certainty that the world was a just and magical place. We had a long way to fall. 

I started to read about a hiker crossing the Yukon wild in temperatures so low his spit crackled frozen in midair. He’ll surely be warm and happy, I thought, when he builds the fire in the title. There was a dog, probably loyal. Should be fun. 

Maybe it was my naiveté that helped me identify with the hiker, because neither of us were prepared for what was coming. He was thinking more about the bacon he was going to fry than the thickness of ice on that creek. And after a few thousand words of trial and error, but mostly error, he faced grave consequences I’d never imagined. By the end of the story, I was a twitching wreck, wondering whether I would try to bear hug my dog to death to warm myself should my hands ever become frostbitten slabs. I spent a sleepless night, a meaningless speck in the indifferent void of eternity. The next morning’s Scooby-Doo was cold comfort, indeed. 

I hear teachers don’t assign Jack London to young students as much anymore. That’s a shame. Maybe I was a little young to receive it, but at least someone told me the truth: The world is chaos and hostility. But skill and a steady hand can keep the chaos at bay. How could I be anything but grateful?