Jul 4, 2020
Each year for the Fourth of July, I try to review a book that captures something of the spirit of the day and of our country. This year, I chose Jack Schaefer's 1949 book, "Shane" his first novel and the source of the famous 1953 film of the same name, directed by George Stevens, starring Alan Ladd, and with a screenplay by the Western novelist, A.B. Guthrie. I chose this book for Independence Day because of the sense of promise it shows for the United States and because of the book's sense of vision and myth-making, qualities which our country sorely needs in difficult times.
Schaefer's novel is set in Wyoming territory in 1889 and is narrated in the first person by Bob Starrett who at the time of the story he tells as an adult was eleven years old. At the outset of the story, Bob is enamored by a mysterious, well-dressed stranger who rides from a distance to the small family farm of his parents, Joe and Marian Starrett. The family are homesteaders trying to establish themselves in a new life. Joe had been a cowboy and the New England born Marian had been a school teacher.
"Call me Shane" the lean, tough stranger says as he and the Starretts become acquainted. Shane's past remains mysterious but troubled. He doesn't wear a gun but clearly is not a man to be trifled with. The Starretts and Shane soon establish a bond, with Shane staying on the farm to work as a hired hand while he gazes longingly in the distance at the mountains.
The film shows conflict and change among three ways of life: the lonely, romantic wanderer and gunfighter represented by Shane, the rising life of the Western small farm and town of the Starrett's and the life of the rancher, represented by Luke Fletcher and his minions. Fletcher is at war with the farmers who use water and land he needs to graze cattle. When Shane comes into the story he becomes attached to the Starretts and their integrity and search for independence. He becomes fond of young Bob who idolizes the charismatic Shane in return. Shane and Joe Starrett form a bond of mutual respect. Shane and Marian become deeply attracted to each other in a way that is painfully obvious to all.
The story involves a fight between Starrett and Shane on the one hand and Fletcher and his hired gun, Stark Wilson, on the other hand. Beginning slowly on the Starrett farm, the novel works to a tense climax and a sharp gunfight in which Shane emerges victorious but severely, likely fatally, wounded. Shane rides off alone and wounded into the mountains telling Bob "Go home to your mother and father. Grow strong and straight and take care of them. Both of them."
The novel is short with simple, beautiful writing that would be the envy of many more self-consciously literary book. The romantic gunfighter Shane comes to usher in a new more settled way of life in the West. The change comes with its costs. Shane and his mystery becomes a symbol for the romance of the American way of life while the Starrett's and their fellow homesteaders show an idealized version of settlement, education, and the value of hard work. Bob carries the vision of his youthful encounter with Shane with him throughout his life, and so, in the aim of the novel, should the reader.
Many people who have seen the 1953 film are probably unfamiliar with Schaefer's novel. At one time, the book appeared on many high school reading lists. The film follows the book reasonably closely, but reading the book is a treasure of its own. "Shane" is included in an upcoming Library of America volume "The Western: Four Classic Novels of the 1940s and 50s" edited by Ron Hansen as well as in a separate paperback edition. It is an outstanding American novel to get to know and a book which will encourage visionary reflection on the United States and its promise on this Independence Day.
Jan 1, 2016
I loved reading this book as a child, and enjoyed the movie with Alan Ladd, too! I was so excited to purchase the book and read it again as an adult. It kept me intrigued and right in the story. I felt like I was in Wyoming Territory!
Dec 31, 2009
The western is a dieing story that is vividly returned to life in this timeless novel that centers on the difficulty of change.
I use this book every year in my classroom for the depth and complexity offered by this tale of one mans search for a new life. The constantly changing plot is challenging for my GATE students, and a tremendous learning opportunity for all of my scholars.
Check it out and see if you can find out what Shane is all about. Don't let this very important portion of American history disappear. It is not a story of guns, rather a story of a desire for life in a difficult time.
Mar 8, 2009
Hate Westerns? Read it anyways. Love Westerns? Definitely read it. It's exciting and touching, and the ending is marvelous. I had an affinity for all the characters, and, by the time the book was over...wanted more, yet was strangely satisfied. Great book.
1 Silent Rating