Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shane by Jack Schaefer *****

Recently I downloaded a PDF of extras for Suzanne Brockmann's latest in the Troubleshooter Series, #13 Into The Fire, from the author's website. On it she has a workshop, Tall, Dark & Believable: Writing compelling romance heroes in which she mentions Shane as being one of her all-time favorite heroes. In fact, she says, "No doubt about it, this character has influenced every one of the men in my books." (In case you're not familiar with Shane, it's a Western.)

For one thing, for you Brockmann/Troubleshooter fans, Sam Starrett's last name is the surname of the family in the book, no doubt a tribute. Shane himself has no last name, although you can see Shane's character and his implied background in Sam as well.

I've seen the movie Shane a couple of times, maybe more, but had never read the book - which, she points out, is her inspiration, not the movie. So I gandered over to the Amazon hitchin' post and ordered me a copy. I didn't just get any ol' copy, I got The Critical Edition, which comes packed with a lot of other stuff - mostly reviews and critical expositions on Schaefer the author and Shane the concept and Schaefer's symbolism and historical details and such. It's a lot of stuff - I read some of it before jumping into the meat of the story (which is short, by the way) and a couple of things after I was done.

First the story. From what I recall, the movie is a pretty fair rendition of the story - even if Alan Ladd doesn't exactly fit my image of the gunslinger. And hey - they changed the kid's name from Bob to Joey in the movie!

The story is told in first person by Bob Starrett the adult, as a recollection from his childhood. Shane is a mysterious stranger who shows up at the Starrett's Wyoming homestead one afternoon in the late 1880s. He asks to water his horse, and as he's leaving, Bob's father Joe Starrett asks him to stay for supper and the night.

The Starretts are one of several homesteaders in the area, working their 160-acre plots as both farmers and minor cattle ranchers. According to some of the extra material in my edition, this was a critical time for open-range ranchers and homesteaders, and there was a lot of political activity, mostly funded and initiated by cattle barons, to keep homesteaders from fencing out the cattle from ranging. That's actually an issue that is hot even today in some states - but I digress.

The other homesteaders consider Joe their leader, and when Joe's most recent hired hand is forced out of town by cattle baron Fletcher's cowboys, a line has been drawn in the sand. Between the 2 factions lies the town and the people who live there to serve them. The town isn't Switzerland, though, and their loyalties shift with the perceived power - which, at the time Shane arrives, is slightly leaning toward Fletcher.

Joe and his wife Marian both take to Shane immediately, although it isn't made 100% clear through Bob's youthful and naive eyes exactly why. In fact, as the reader you're left to draw your own conclusions at the end. I kept wondering if in fact they knew him, or knew of him, all along. Shane also takes to them, all 3 of them, and warily settles in as a hired hand. One thing is clear: he owns a gun, but he never carries it. Another is only hinted at - the balance of power on the Starrett ranch shifts perceptibly when Shane takes over Joe's chair at the dinner table. It's a powerful image but conflicting, because in Bob's eyes, Joe never really gives up anything to Shane, he only accommodates him to serve his own purposes.

The cattle baron tries to run Shane out of town, sending cowboys to rough him up, but Shane is wise in the ways of fighting, even without a gun. And he does have a reputation - of the 2 cowboys sent first, one either recognizes him or is scared off by his looks, and leaves town rather than face him. I read it as recognition. The other takes him on, much to Shane's chagrin. Shane doesn't want to fight him - and lets him know it before breaking his arm.

Fletcher takes it up a notch by bringing in a gunfighter who goads another homesteader into a gunfight, in which the homesteader is killed. Then Fletcher puts the ball in Starrett's court: sell out or face the consequences. Joe wants to sell out, to save everyone - Shane, Marian, the other homesteaders - from any further fighting. Oh, you know he doesn't really want to sell out - but he's a family man, and a leader - he knows he must at least put voice to the fact that people and lives come first, even before honor if it means being Dead Right. It's a lesson that goes a long way with Bob, I felt, even though Marian and Shane convince him leaving is not the answer. Marian knows leaving without a fight will mean giving up more than land, and that it will go against all the things he believes in. She knows he is doing it for her, but stands her ground.

The issue of any feelings between Marian and Shane is left completely to the reader's imagination. Bob overhears things said between them, and he relays them filtered through his youth. It could be she fancied him as a man, as a lover, or it could just be that she saw him as a hero just as Bob did. Her love for Joe is never really questioned, in my mind, by Bob's narrative. Her reaction to Joe after the bar fight gives me the idea that Shane brings out the good and the strong in Joe, which she appreciates. I think even the movie gives you more of her wanting Shane than might be there in the book. She only questions whether what Shane does for them is only for her - she speaks this as though maybe something has passed between them, maybe only shared looks and nothing more.

Well - this isn't romance, although there is a happy ending for Joe and Marian. We don't know if Shane ever gets his happy ending, because he does what Western heroes do - he goes off into the sunset, alone. The scene, through Bob's eyes, choked me up, but the real tears started after that, when a cowboy shows up to take Shane's place on the farm. I can't rightly say why that got me going, but as I write this now I'm tearing up again. It isn't just Shane, it's Joe, and it's Marian and it's the town and the cowboy. Shane wasn't the only hero in the book, he was just the catalyst to bringing out the hero in every good person in the story, even Bob. Maybe especially Bob. While the movie ends with Joey-the-kid calling out to Shane not to leave, the book goes on to show us more of the impact on Bob's life, the lessons he took away from the entire story. He already had more than Shane had ever had - loving parents, a strong community, roots, education. Shane was just a passerby who made it all clear.

5 stars. A tearjerker and a keeper. Maybe I'll even read all those boring critical reviews about all the symbolism and stuff.

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