Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Shane - Jack Schaefer

For a lot of legitimate reasons western novels get as little respect as romance novels, and, in fact, I’ve several times seen westerns characterized disparagingly as “romance novels for men.” But for a lot of equally legitimate reasons, westerns and romance novels, when they are approached in a serious manner by their authors, deserve the same respect granted to their supposedly more sophisticated cousins. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is most definitely a western that stands tall for good reason. 

Shane certainly has its share of fistfights, and even includes a memorable gunfight between two of the fastest gunslingers passing through the state of Wyoming. But it also features a young couple trying to teach their son Bob (the novel’s narrator) right from wrong to provide him with a proper moral code he can live by for the rest of his life. It features a man so conflicted by his past that he struggles to keep himself under control even when violence is the only way to protect himself and those he loves. And it even explores one of the sweetest love-triangles I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Shane may not be the perfect western novel, but it comes as close as any to meeting that standard. 

     “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.” 

That’s the impression that Shane gave Bob when the two first set eyes on each other as Shane rides up to the Starrett farm. From that first moment, the boy senses something different about Shane, something very dangerous to anyone who might dare cross him for the wrong reason. Shane arrives just about the time that half-a-dozen small farmers are being coerced by a rich cattleman to walk away from the homesteads upon which they depend for a living. The man wants to drive large herds of cattle through the territory, but he cannot do that if he has to bypass all the fenced-off farms adjoining his own property. And after receiving a big government contract to supply as much beef as he can come up with, he will do whatever it takes to destroy the farms in his way. 

 Shane has to choose a side or ride away...he doesn’t ride away. 

Soon enough, Shane becomes a symbol of resistance to both sides of the fence dispute, something that he both regrets and accepts: 

     “In some strange fashion the feeling was abroad that Shane was a marked man. Attention was on him as a sort of symbol. By taking him on father had accepted in a way a challenge from the big ranch across the river. What had happened to Morley had been a warning and father had deliberately answered it. The long unpleasantness was sharpened now after the summer lull. The issue in our valley was plain and would in time have to be pushed to a showdown. If Shane could be driven out, there would be a break in the homestead rank, a defeat going beyond the loss of a man into the realm of prestige and morale. It could be the crack in the dam that weakens the whole structure and finally less through the flood.” 

Neither Shane, nor the Starretts, are willing to let that happen. 

Bottom Line: Shane is filled with memorable characters, heroes and villains, alike. One of the most memorable is Marian Starrett, a woman strong enough to support her husband in his fight to save their livelihood from the man who wants to steal it from them. The complicated relationship between Joe Starrett, his wife Marian, and Shane is one that Schaefer handles perfectly in this, his debut novel. Shane is so good that I can only imagine the pressure that Schaefer must have felt for the rest of his life to match it.

Jack Schaefer


8 comments:

  1. The reason I love a good western is because westerns are filled with heroes who stand up to the bad guys and who do the right thing. Even when it gets them in trouble. I haven't read this one, but I feel like I should just because it's so famous. :)

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    1. Shane is considered by many to be the best western ever written, Lark. Shane is definitely a good guy, but he's a good guy with a colored past and being "good" is a struggle for him. It's very "literary" in the sense that it's main characters are complex and well-developed. And, it's short, coming in at about 125 pages depending on which edition you read.

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  2. I actually have a copy of this. Westerns aren't really my thing, but then I haven't tried many. I figured I ought to start with a reputedly good one.

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    1. It's definitely right up there with the best westerns I've ever read. Somewhere in my Top 5, for sure, Jeane. I hope you enjoy it.

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  3. I vaguely remember the film, but have never read the novel. Thanks Sam, for this one as I do love a good Western. :)

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    1. Jen, Shane is in my top 10 all-time favorite movies, and I remember it well. It is a bit different from the novel, especially the ending, but both work very well. The novel is now somewhere in my top 5 western novels, ranked somewhere below Lonesome Dove.

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  4. Great review! I’m not American and can only think
    of one western I’ve read - Riders of the Purple Dage which was ok but not fantastic. Shane sounds much more literary.

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    1. Thank you, Carol. Riders of the Purple Sage is, as I recall, kind of stilted and old-fashioned...maybe even boring...in its style. There are several western-writers that I truly admire, and they are not generally the ones with the biggest names.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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