Shane by Jack Schaefer – Western Thursday Book Review

I will likely be re-reading this book later this month. I wanted to get this review posted today and I rushed getting it read, which I regret somewhat. It deserves to be read slowly and calmly.

One day while on holiday in Texas, in the early 1990s, my family encountered a couple at the end of a hiking trail. By this time, I had seen the Shane film already a handful of times, but I had not read the book. For reasons I forget, a friendly debate ensued about what the name of the kid who narrates Shane is. We didn’t know the couple at all. We never saw them again. But we all knew the Shane story, close to fifty years after it was first published, and were happy to pass a few moments talking about it with strangers. That’s how important this book is to the western genre, and American literature more generally. (And for the record, the answer to the question is – Bob in the book, Joey in the movie.)

Shane was serialized in 1946 and published as a slightly longer book in 1949, and it was made into a movie that was released in 1953. It has served as inspiration for a number of films and stories since.

A few posts back, I mentioned how some stories I’ve encountered have become foundational stories for me, or, as a commentator put it, heart stories. Another way of putting it might be that some stories and their characters become a sort of fictional extended family or network of friends for us.

Yes, Shane is one of those stories for me. One that I had half-forgotten for awhile, forgotten it sufficiently that when I became interested in the work and life of actor Alan Ladd, it took what was, on reflection, a rather embarrassing long time for me to grasp that a significant if mostly subconscious part of the reason was probably because he played the character Shane in the 1953 movie. As a kid, I mostly didn’t remember actors, I remembered characters.

It has now been many years since I’ve seen Shane. I’m not sure why, exactly, except that we all let friends drop sometimes. (And it does not seem to come around on TV too often for whatever reason.) However, I did listen to an audiobook reading of the book not too long ago. The version I listened to was narrated by Eric G Dove. It includes an introduction which was fun for someone like me who already knew the movie version of the story but it also includes spoilers. Beware if you don’t already know the story.

Now, finally, I have read the book myself. Because this is one of my “heart stories,” I can’t really say if it’s really any good or not. There are some passages that demanded of me a pause and attempt at reflection, despite my self-imposed hurry. Some passages just demand unalloyed appreciation. Coming across some “scenes” again made me smile fondly. But there were also parts where the story seemed a bit…slippery and if not exactly hard to follow, a bit unclear on what was trying to be conveyed. Some of it seems a bit garbled, and I’m hoping that it seems less so on a second, slower read.

I can understand how some people, required to read this story for school, as it seems some people have been in the past, might dismiss it. It tries to deal with a lot of concepts in a small space, and I think it’s probably too much for some young people. I think it’s possibly a bit too much for me, too, which is why I want to go back and try again soon.

This is a very simple, stereotypical story. Big Bad Rancher threatens Nice Small-Time Farmer and Family, Mysterious Stranger Rides To The Rescue all while everyone Enjoys The Scenery. It is also a quite complex story that has a lot to say about life, love, honour, respect, the cost of violence, sacrifice, civilization, the future, the past, parenting, childhood, etc, and… the somewhat questionable importance of clearing stumps from your farm yard.

There is a sequence in this story which is a glorious celebration of new friendship, purposeful, shared, hard physical work and the satisfaction that comes from it, involving a giant tree stump. This was, I understand, an addition to the serialized story when it came time to plump it out to novel length. (It’s really more novella length, my copy is only 168 pages long.) In another earlier post, I mentioned that I really like “barn-building type” scenes in my westerns. Well, in Shane, we don’t build a barn, we clear a stump. (As someone interested in ecologically-sound farming practises, I feel I have to interject and say “Wait, you might want to keep that biomass!” but it’s still a great story moment and I’m glad it was added in.)

This story is also, I think, fully conscious that it is recounting a myth. I’ve read various interpretations of the character Shane, ranging from “He’s just a guy. A courageous and honourable guy, but a guy” to “He’s actually the villain of the piece” through “he’s an extraterrestrial” and “this is a story about a Good Angel versus a Demon” and finally to “he is a corporal manifestation of the spirit of the Wild West.” To which I say and why not?

The book and the movie are not exactly the same, with some different scenes, which is also fine. I think the movie does some things better, and the book probably does other things better. I initially had more written here about these differences, but this review is meant to be about the book, and I want to try and stick with that. I will say though that the book, I think, is clearer about Shane’s next hours after the story ends than the movie was.

To provide a skim over the plot:
Shane was once a gunfighter for hire, but has (literally) taken off his guns and is in search for something else, when he rides up to the Starrett’s smallholding one day.

(In the intro to the audiobook, I heard that when Jack Schaeffer, not being much of a movie-goer, attended opening night for the film Shane, upon seeing fair Alan Ladd riding up at the start of the movie, in what has become the iconic Shane buckskin outfit but which is not at all what dark Shane in the book wears, asked loudly, “Who the *bleep* is that?”) Well.

Over the course of the story, Shane is at first wary, and then (mostly) quietly delighted, to be treated with respect and taken into the Starrett household, despite his past, which is never discussed in detail. The Starrett’s are willing to give him a chance to live a different life, and he is grateful to try. Joe Starrett (the father/husband/unofficial leader of the homesteaders) recognizes the essential decency and goodness in Shane, and Shane recognizes that Joe is also a good and honourable man.

Shane sort of…falls in love with the Starretts. Individually, but also as a whole, as a family and, as a representation of a good future.

It might have been nice if Marian Starrett, also a good person, Joe’s wife and the narrator’s mother, had a little more to do than bake an apple pie, fuss about hats, and love her kid and both Joe and Shane. But she gets full points for understanding, unlike some other fictional western women who frankly drive me up the wall, that no, they shouldn’t run away just because the Baddie wants them to leave. She understands Joe has to make a stand, that they have to defend what’s right. And she understands, perhaps before Joe does, that Shane can’t let Joe be the one to go to town and face Wilson, even if Joe sees it as his fight alone.

Because, eventually, of course, Shane must defend the Starretts against Big Bad Rancher Fletcher and his hired wicked gunman Wilson, even though it means giving up the better future for himself.

The Johnson County War, the historical conflict in Wyoming’s history which is said to have inspired Shane, was, of course, a lot more complicated than the mythic tale presented here. The question of which is “right” for the country – open range, low density, low input ranching or intensified farming, is also open to debate, I think, but it’s also not really the point of this story.

I am still, after so many times over decades following this story through, still not sure not sure if I agree with much of the philosophy of this novel, but then again, I’m not sure I understand it fully. I’m also still unsure if it’s a tragic tale or triumphant. And so, I intend to read (and watch) it again soon.

Update: I have now re-read this novella. On second, slower reading, I found that Marian is actually a stronger character than it first appears, and I was re-confirmed in my belief that one of this story’s many strengths is that there is not just one hero, but a number of heroes. On second reading, I was left speculating about the pasts and futures of many of it’s characters, and more convinced that many of the morals of this story are good. However, I may be just too 21st century, city-raised Canadian to ever fully accept the famous “a gun is just a tool” aspect of this story… I was also left with a desire for a serving of pancakes washed down with a bottle of soda pop, fiendish suggestion though it is.

I expect I will return to this novella again, now and then.

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