Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

Schaefer's Shane: Best Western YetJack Schaefer. 2013. Shane (Orig Pub 1948). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I grew up loving films and books about the old West. In the 1960s shows like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers enjoyed a dedicated following because they embodied the ideals of self-sufficiency, development of character, and manhood that most boys aspired to. Often these stories featured corporate villains whose greed and corrupting influence on local police needed to be exposed by individuals with unwavering character and a steady draw.

Introduction

Jack Schaefer’s western novella, Shane,starts simply with a touch of mystery: “He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89.” (1) We immediately ask: who is this “he,” where is “our valley,” and, by the way, what century are we talking about?

This first, declarative sentence accordingly has the flavor of a series of questions prompting interest. The second sentence introduces the narrator who introduces himself as a kid and indirectly describes himself in the first person as between four and five feet tall: “barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuckwagon.” We know from this description that this story takes place in 1889, not 1989, when horses and chuckwagons were more common.

The second paragraph talks about “clear Wyoming air” that places this story on the frontier when many adult men were veterans of the Civil War and shortly after most Indian wars were over. The third paragraph shows our horseman taking a fork in the road choosing between a road leading to “Luke Fletcher’s big spread”and one leading to where “homesteaders”had staked their claims. Choosing the latter foreshadows later tension between the two.

Fastidiousness

The remainder of the first scene introduces our horseman, Shane, to our narrator, Robert MacPherson Starrett (Bob) and to his parents Joe and Marian Starrett (6-7). Along the way, we learn that Shane and the Starretts share the common virtue of fastidiousness about all that they do, which we learn from the dialogue offering introductions:

My name’s Starrett, said father. Joe Starrett. This here, waving at me, is Robert MacPherson Starrett. Too much name for a boy. I make it Bob.  

The stranger nodded again. Call me Shane, he said. Then to me: Bob it is, You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.  

It was not a question. It was a simple statement. Yes… I stammered. Yes. I was.  

Right, he said. I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.

This fastidious watchfulness sets each of our characters apart from everyone else around them and instinctively draws them together. This watchfulness is like in the story of Gideon who selects an elite team of soldiers based how they drink water from a stream—like a dog lapping it up—so that they would remain aware of their surroundings (Judg 6:5-7).

Tension

Shane is drawn to the Starretts because of their common fastidiousness and willingness to take him on as a hand even though he claims no expertise in farming.

Schaefer introduces inner tension into our understanding of Shane in sharing his relationship with his gun. Bob observes that unlike other men who considered a gun a token of virility: “Share carried no gun.” Yet, Shane owns a beautiful, well-balanced, “single-action Colt” with an ivory grip that he keeps wrapped up in his saddle-roll (52-53). Shane never displays his gun, even in the face of obvious threats.

Bob’s discovery of the gun hints at Shane’s background as a gunfighter and foreshadows later tension between farmer Joe Starrett and rancher Luke Fletcher, but for now we are left to wonder why Shane is so evasive about his past and so thankful for Joe’s willingness to teach him farming. Is Shane ashamed of his past?

Christ Figure

Shane’s inner tension gets pressed several times when he is goaded into fights that he wins through seer tenacity. When he breaks the arm of young man Chris, one Fletcher’s men, in a fight, he is truly sorry and tells one of the townsmen:

“Take good care of him. He has the makings of a good man.” (87)

Later in confronting a gunfighter hired by Fletcher, Shane takes up his gun, seeks him out, and shoots him and Fletcher both, a fight not his own that leaves him wounded and forced, in his mind, to leave town. His sacrifice, not unlike the American self-image during the Second World War, gives this reluctant gunslinger the appearance of a Christ figure, something seldom seen in more recent fiction.

Assessment

As a young man, I remember watching a movie, Shane (1953), drawn from Jack Schaefer’s 1948 book, Shane. The movie won a number of awards and nominations.[1]Unlike most of today’s police shows and space adventures that feature adult themes, Schaefer wrote targeting adolescent boys who today are mostly forgotten in the effort to sexualize youth and be inclusive. I loved reading Shane and found it a reminder of all that is good and decent about America, something we seemed to have forgotten or no longer believe.

Footnotes

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shane_(film).

Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

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