Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Richard S. Wheeler: SHANE by Jack Schaefer

This post is the second installment in our series on Western classics. These contributions by Western master Richard S. Wheeler will provide an in-depth analysis of key works, including the circumstances of publication and the author as well as a discussion on what went into these stories and why they are now ranked among the best. Our first first installment in the series examined Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass. This week, we will take a look at Jack Schaefer's Shane.

Shane, by Jack Schaefer, is easily the most famous of western novels, and the one that made the most history. It was first published in 1946 as a three-part serial in Argosy Magazine, under the title, "Rider from Nowhere." Houghton Mifflin published it in book form in 1949 under the Shane title. It eventually went into seventy or more editions and sold twelve million copies (in a nation with half of today’s population). It also appeared in thirty foreign languages. It became the watershed novel that changed western fiction into men’s literature featuring the gunman hero. Its success was so phenomenal that publishers thereafter wanted gunman stories and little else.

The novel is narrated by Bob Starrett, son of Joe and Marian Starrett, who are nesters in a valley of the Big Horn mountains, a day’s ride from Sheridan. The boy first spots Shane riding along the road, a person so remarkable that passing riders turn to stare at him. There is something unusual about the approaching man:

"He would have looked frail alongside father’s square, solid bulk. But even I could read the endurance in the lines of that dark figure and the quiet power in his effortless, unthinking adjustment to every movement of the tired horse.

"He was clean-shaven and his face was lean and hard and burned from high forehead to firm, tapering chin. His eyes seemed hooded in the shadow of the hat’s brim. He came closer and I could see that this was because the brows were drawn into a frown of fixed and habitual alertness. Beneath them the eyes were endlessly searching from side to side and forward, checking off every item in view, missing nothing. As I noticed this, a sudden chill, and I could not have told why, struck through me there in the warm and open sun."

As Bob gets to know Shane, he realizes the man is also lonely and apart, and there is an inner sadness in him. Joe Starrett hires Shane as a hand on Starrett’s farm, and Shane puts aside his handsome clothes and buys dungarees. Both Joe and Marian are aware that Shane is different and dangerous, and yet both welcome him. Indeed, Marian flirts with Shane, and as the story grows, so does a deep, if platonic, love between them.

There is trouble afoot in the valley. Luke Fletcher, the major landholder in the valley, wants more land to expand his cattle empire, and has tried fruitlessly to drive out the nesters, using bullying, intimidation, and open threats. Starrett, the strongest and most courageous of the nesters, refuses to budge and encourages the other nesters to resist as well. It doesn’t hurt that the stranger called Shane, who says nothing of his past or his future, is firmly committed to the Starretts.

In the daily toil, Joe Starrett and Shane become friends and rivals. In a famous scene in which the pair attempt to reduce a huge stump, they vie with each other to hack it out of the ground, each trying to prove himself the better man– worthy of the other’s esteem and also Marian’s affections.

But this is not a story about a love triangle; it’s a story about worth. Near the end of the novel, with Shane on his way into town to defend the Starretts against a killer named Stark Wilson, Marian asks Shane whether he is plunging into deadly danger just for her.

"Shane hesitated for a long, long moment. ‘No, Marian.’ His gaze seemed to widen and encompass us all, mother and the still figure of father huddled on a chair by the window, and somehow the room and the house and the whole place. Then he was looking only at mother and she was all he could see.

"‘No, Marian. Could I separate you in my mind and afterwards be a man?"

Shane is the smaller physically, but even more forceful than Joe, and Bob Starrett is awed by the fierce bloom of life and purpose in Shane whenever he tackles an impossible task. And the impossible tasks do come along, as Luke Fletcher hunts for ways to break Shane and the Starretts. One of the worst of these occurs in the town saloon, when five of Fletcher’s biggest brutes swarm in and nail Shane. Schaefer’s depiction of the barroom fight is one of the most brutal ever put on a page. The Fletcher men gradually overwhelm Shane, breaking a bottle over Shane’s skull and stunning him, until Joe Starrett wades in and evens the score. Starrett himself is big and tough, and no pushover, and all the hard toil of his daily farming life pays off when he mauls Fletcher’s cowboys.

Fletcher heads out of town and returns with a gunman named Stark Wilson, whose reputation Shane knows and respects. Wilson begins by picking on the easiest target, the most hotheaded nester, and kills him. After that, it becomes plain that the nesters must either flee or perish, along with their families and all they possess. Joe Starrett doesn’t want Shane’s help; he tells Shane this is his fight and he’ll deal with Wilson his own way. Shane’s response is to cold-cock Starrett and leave him in Marian’s care.

The saloon gunfight is one of the most gripping written. The novel is so well known that I will spoil nothing by saying that Shane is the deadlier man, though Wilson wounds him. And Shane manages to kill the back-shooting Fletcher in the nick of time. When it is over, the wounded Shane rides quietly out of town and into the night, to the deep sorrow of Bob who is almost inconsolable. Shane soon vanishes into mystery and legend, his whereabouts unknown, just as his past is unknown. And the Starretts have their farm in the peaceful valley of Wyoming.

This was Jack Schaefer’s first novel. He preferred in later years to write stories less mythic and more attuned to the real West. He had grown up in Cleveland, an avid reader of everything he could get his hands on, and spent much of his life as a journalist. Although he is little known, and the volume of his work is small, he surely ranks as one of this nation’s greatest novelists.

- Richard S. Wheeler.


Anonymous said...

A great novelist, this Jack Schaefer is, but Shane is quite possibly the greatest book ever written.

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Stormy said...

Great review by a talented and accomplished writer.

I'm a great fan of "Shane," but also hold Shaefer's "Monte Walsh" in high esteem.

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