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London spent almost a year in the Yukon, and his observations form much of the material for the book. The story was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903 and was published a month later in book form. The book's great popularity and success made a reputation for London. As early as 1923, the story was adapted to film, and it has since seen several more cinematic adaptations.
The story opens with Buck, a large and powerful St. Bernard-Scotch Shepherd, living happily in California's Santa Clara Valley as the pampered pet of rich Judge Miller and his family. However, he is stolen by the gardener's assistant, Manuel, and sold to finance his gambling addiction. He is shipped to Seattle. Put in a crate, he is starved and ill-treated. When released, he attacks his overseer, known only as the "man in the red sweater" but this man teaches the "law of the club", hitting Buck until he is sufficiently cowed (but the man shows some kindness after Buck stops). Buck is then sold to a pair of French-Canadian dispatchers from the Canadian government, François and Perrault, who take him with them to the Klondike region of Canada. There, they train him as a sled dog. From his teammates, he quickly learns to survive cold winter nights and the pack society. A rivalry develops between Buck and the vicious, quarrelsome lead dog, Spitz. Buck eventually beats Spitz in a fight. Spitz is killed by the pack after his defeat by Buck, and Buck eventually becomes the leader of the team.