Though I consider Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and Charles Portis’s “True Grit” to be 20th-century classics, I’ve read few other Westerns. Louis L’Amour is a prince of this genre, yet of his many novels, including the Sackett series which an acquaintance highly recommends, I’ve read only “Last of the Breed,” a story set mostly in Russia during the Cold War, and his “Education of a Wandering Man,” an autobiography, largely focused on literature, which I taught in several high school English classes.
It was disinterest rather than snobbery that steered me away from Westerns. Films about the Old West, new and old, have appealed to me since I was a kid, and I’ve ridden across the prairie with the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart with vicarious pleasure and excitement. Western novels, however, never grabbed my attention. Too bad for me.
A Familiar TaleOn its surface, “Shane” is a story with few surprises for anyone familiar with films and books about the American West. A stranger rides onto a homesteader’s property and asks for a drink of water for himself and his horse. The farmer, Joe Starrett, obliges and introduces his 13-year-old son Bob (the novel’s boy-grown-to-man narrator) and his wife Marian to the rider, who goes only by the name of Shane.
Though Shane is traveling to a destination known only to him, he decides to accept Joe’s invitation to stay and work for a while. He keeps his past hidden behind a polite façade, so much so that even on his first night with the Starretts, Marian comments to her husband that Shane is “mysterious” and “dangerous.” Joe’s reply reveals his keen eye for judging character and a bit of Shane’s personality.
“‘He’s dangerous all right.’ Father said in a musing way. Then he chuckled. ‘But not to us, my dear.’ And then he said what seemed to me a curious thing. ‘In fact, I don’t think you ever had a safer man in your house.’”
That assessment proves accurate and vital to the story. By means of threats and intimidation, a rancher, Fletcher, is determined to run off Joe and the other homesteaders who have lawfully laid claims to their land. Fletcher wants the land so as to have more room for grazing his expanding herd of cattle.
Fletcher’s words soon escalate into violence, and after several confrontations, it is Shane who finishes this frontier war by killing Fletcher and his hired gun while revealing himself as the gunfighter he once was. The wounded Shane rides away, and the Starrett family and others are finally free to work their land and build a new territory.
Beneath the SurfaceThis simple plot contains subtle conflicts and themes that explain why “Shane” is regarded as a classic of Western literature.
Readers may be surprised, for instance, to find that Schaefer devotes an entire chapter, almost 20 pages, to the removal of a stump, “the one bad spot on our place.” Joe has hacked away with his ax at this stump off and on, but there it sits. Now Shane begins chopping at it, feeling that he owes Joe a debt not just for his food and a place to sleep, but because Joe defended him against the insults of a traveling salesman. Soon, both men are swinging their axes against the root of the stump, working away hour after hour until finally they conquer the “old monster.”
This scene reveals the labor that it took to break this land to a horse and plough, the bonding of Shane with the Starretts, and the attraction of Marian to Shane.
This attraction, which is mutual, runs throughout the novel and is so subtle that a careless reader might miss it altogether. It is never spoken in so many words until the final pages. And though Marian, Shane, and even Joe are aware of these flickering flames between the homesteader’s wife and the lone drifter, both Marian and Shane realize, again, without words, that it could never work between them. Marian loves Joe and her son and the idea of a family, and Shane is an outsider, a man who envies what she has but knows that a wife and a family can never be his. When at last he straps on his pistol and heads for town to settle the affair with Fletcher, he does so for the family, not just for Marian, and tells her so.
Much more obvious is Bob’s hero worship of Shane, evident almost from the moment they meet. The boy loves and admires his father but wants to become like Shane, an idolatry that the man of mystery constantly deflects. Even at the end of the novel, when Shane is set to ride away, he tells Bob: “It’s up to you now. Go home to your mother and father. Grow strong and straight and take care of them. Both of them.”
Lessons for Today“Shane” was originally published in Argosy magazine in 1946 in a three-part serial. Originally titled “Rider From Nowhere,” it’s set in 1889 Wyoming, which means that Jack Schaefer was closer to the time of which he wrote than the publication of the book is to us today. In the meantime, we’ve become an international power, put men on the moon, undergone enormous cultural changes, and invented digital machines and phones that have utterly changed our world. To some people these days, the Old West likely seems as distant as ancient Greece.
Which may be one of the best reasons of all to read this book.
“Shane” reminds us of the enormous cost in blood, toil, and tears it took to turn a wilderness into farms and towns. “Root, hog, or die,” was a slogan some early settlers lived by, meaning either you worked or you withered away. Joe, Marian, and Bob Starrett, and the rest of the homesteaders labor from dawn to dusk to turn fallow land into fields, to carve out homes and barns, and to attend to all the little details that come with living this harsh life. There’s no government to offer assistance, no safety net if things go south. Instead, they depend on their neighbors when they need a helping hand.
Schaefer also reminds us that the family is the building block of civilization. Shane instinctively understands this idea. Before setting out to settle the community’s score with Fletcher, he knocks Joe Starrett unconscious to keep him out of the fight and so save his life. In an earlier incident, he distracts Fletcher’s gunman to prevent him from possibly shooting Joe. Though he is endeavoring to put aside the violence of his past, Shane recognizes that the time to stand up and resist evil is at hand, and straps on his firearm.
Noticeably absent from these pages are any of the political and cultural issues that make headlines today. Joe Starrett is a strong man, a good husband and father, and Marian is his equal in making decisions and plans for the future. Each has traditional roles in regard to work, but there’s no hint here of feminist ideology or male patriarchy. Apparently, in 1889 and in 1946, these issues didn’t exist.
Finally, we live in an age of bullying, ranging from threats and insults on social media to the mandates and demands of local, state, and federal governments. “Shane” reminds us that if we fold our cards and give way to thugs and tyrants, we lose. Strong-armed by Fletcher and his men, the homesteaders nearly abandon their hardscrabble farms. Only when Shane stands up to the intimidators and accepts the personal cost of that resistance are they free to live their lives.
If you’re looking to pay a visit to the Old West, and for a story that’s as appropriate for teens as it is for adults, you don’t want to miss “Shane.”