My sister read The Cruise of the Snark last summer and mentioned it to me, but I didn’t venture into it until this summer when we were in Sonoma California looking for a place for a picnic lunch. The friendly volunteer at the Chamber of Commerce suggested lunching in the Jack London State Park. I must confess, I did not realize Jack London grew up in San Francisco nor did I know he was way into sustainable farming on his huge plot of land in Sonoma about 80 years before most other people even thought of the concept. And considering that many people today still think growing and eating organically and sustainably is unnecessary, London was more like 114 years ahead of his time. So anyway, we ventured into the London museum where we watched a video about his life and perused his nearly 50 books. He died at age 40, started writing in his late teens or early twenties and wrote 50 books along with numerous short stories and articles. That averages to more than 2 books per year. Plus, he created and worked on this farm and built a boat and sailed part way around the world for two years. He was also involved in political issues and other various endeavors. No idea how he did all of this.
The “Snark” room offered photos and maps of his journey on this 55 foot sailboat, and after seeing those, I knew I wanted to read the book. And it’s an oddly written adventure story with droll humor. It reads more like a diary (and frankly, feels like it was written in one draft), but because it’s London and it’s 1907, his diary style is also quite formal. For example, before even leaving San Francisco, the boat has all sorts of problems (besides being over a year late and hugely over budget) in which London discloses “We started rather lame, I confess. We had to hoist anchor by hand because the power seventy-horse-power engine was lashed down for ballast on the bottom of the Snark. But what of such things? They could be fixed in Honolulu” (27). Shortly after launching, not only did the engine not work, but the boat leaked and had to be pumped every day, much of the food immediately spoiled, no one knew how to navigate, the water tight compartments weren’t water tight after all, the bathroom went out of commission after 24 hours, the gas tanks leaked, and the list goes on. London casually mentions each of these setbacks as if they were minor details like forgetting a few boat cushions or losing some dishware overboard. Somehow, after learning navigation on the fly, they make it to Hawaii and eventually through the South Pacific, ending their journey a year and a half later in the Solomon Islands where every crew member including himself and his wife have multiple bouts with fever and dysentery, yaws (open ulcers on the skin), and various other diseases along with bushmen trying to kill them. But along the way, they spend weeks and/or months at stopping points learning to surf in Hawaii, doing a great bit of fishing and hiking and exploring on the many islands, learning languages and local customs, riding in double Polynesian canoes, and engaging in a myriad of other adventurous activities. By modern standards, the setbacks seem unbearable, and it’s a near miracle that they made it as far as they did. I definitely have a new appreciated for London’s spirit for adventure, and I may well view his other work in a new light. (nonfiction/memoir)