Friday, March 4, 2016

by Jack Schaefer
I suspect that just about every person who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s has either read the novel or seen the film “Shane,” the story of intrepid homesteader pitted against ruthless cattle baron, of Might versus Right, of the invincible hero -- against great odds -- vanquishing Evil.  Trite?  Unrealistic?  Yes.  Entertaining?  Definitely.  All of us love it when Good triumphs.
The author, Jack Schaefer, demonstrating, I believe, average narrative skills, has tapped into our universal need to witness what rarely happens in life: victimizers of the weak and virtuous routed.   If you have not read this book, I suggest that you go to the library or buy a copy.  Finish it (168 pages) in one or two days.  It will make you feel good.
Schaefer did structure his plot well.  A mysterious rider stops by a homestead in a Wyoming valley in the year 1889 to ask for a drink of water.  By chance he has come to property claimed by the leader of a collection of homesteaders who are fulfilling the federal land grant requirement that they live on and develop their plots a specific number of years to be granted full ownership.  The stranger, Shane, and the homesteader, Joe Starrett, quickly bond; Shane agrees to work for Starrett until the approach of winter.  Starrett’s previous worker had been run out of the valley by the cattle baron, Luke Fletcher, who wants to expand his herd to be able to receive a large beef contract from the government.  Fletcher wants all the government land on both sides of valley-dividing river for grazing.  He knows that if he can force Starrett to leave the valley, the other homesteaders will quickly follow.
We learn in the very first chapter that Shane has had a violent past that pains his conscience.  He is secretive about it.   We recognize soon that it involved gun fighting.  Told by Starrett about what Fletcher is up to, Shane remarks: “It’s always the same.  The old ways die hard.”  Late in the novel, Shane tells Starrett’s young son that the boy has a father who is “a real man behind him, the kind that could back him for the chance another kid [presumably Shane] never had.” 
The author gives Shane a super-hero aura.  One example is found in the climatic scene in the novel.
Belt and holster and gun … These were not things he was wearing or carrying.  They were part of him, part of the man, of the full sum of the integrate force that was Shane.  … Now that he was no longer in his crude work clothes, he seemed again slender, almost slight, as he did that first day.  The change was more than that.  What had been seeming iron was again steel.  The slenderness was that of the tempered blade and a razor edge was there.  Slim and dark in the doorway, he seemed somehow to fill the whole frame. 
A series of violent events – I found them enjoyable -- involving Fletcher’s men, a hired gun fighter, and eventually Fletcher himself bring the story to its conclusion.
The author chose wisely to tell the story in first person from the young son’s point of view.  Because the boy is mostly not able to tell us what his parents and Shane are thinking, we are limited throughout the book in what we know.  What the author wishes us to know is parceled out, often inferentially.  We continue to read to be better informed and to have our suppositions confirmed.  
This is especially true of the romantic feelings Starrett’s loyal wife, Marian, and Shane have for each other.  The boy recalls cautious words exchanged that imply feelings of love.  We respect the integrity of each person and understand the cause.  It is an element of the book that I especially liked.  Here is an example. 
After Shane has thrashed one of Fletcher’s bullies in the town saloon, Marian asks Shane to stay on.  She knows that Fletcher will now resort to violence to defeat her husband.
“You thought it would just be a case of not letting him scare you away and of helping us through a hard time.  You didn’t know it would come to what it has.  And now you’re worried about what you might do if there’s any more fighting.”
“You’re a discerning woman, Marian.”
“You’ve been worrying about something else too.”
“You’re a mighty discerning woman, Marian.”
“And you’ve been thinking that maybe you’ll be moving on.”
“And how did you know that?”
“Because it’s what you ought to do.  For your own sake.  But I’m asking you not to.”  Mother was intense and serious, as lovely there with the light striking through her hair as I had ever seen her.  “Don’t go, Shane.  Joe needs you.  More than ever now.  More than he would ever say.”
“And you?  Shane’s lips barely moved and I was not sure of the words.
Mother hesitated.  Then her head went up.  “Yes, it’s only fair to say it.  I need you too.”
“So-o-o,” he said softly, the words lingering on his lips.  He considered her gravely.  “Do you know what you’re asking, Marian?”
“I know.  And I know that you’re the man to stand up to it.  In some ways it would be easier for me, too, if you rode out of this valley and never came back.”
Here is what I did not like. 
Clarity of expression is an essential part of good writing.  Here are two of several examples where Mr. Schaefer’s narration was lacking.
He was the man I saw that first day, a stranger, dark and forbidding, forging his lone way out of an unknown past in the utter loneliness of his own immovable and instinctive defiance.
You could see now that for the first time this man who had been living with us, who was one of us, was complete, was himself in the final effect of his being.
Characterization also was deficient.  The minor characters were not developed.  They seemed little more than names.  The major characters were pretty much stereotypes.  Shane is a super hero.  Joe Starrett is hard-working, stalwart, virtuous, self-sacrificing.  Marian is the good wife and mother, entirely loyal, despite her affection for Shane.  Fletcher is unbendingly avaricious and, eventually, homicidal.  But then, maybe this novel was not intended to be realistic.  Accidental or not, it is a tale that pits Good against Evil.  And Good wins!  How can I criticize that?