It bit deep, the love I felt for this slim novel; and it surprised me. My first, this-is-the-way-it-has-to-be instinct is to type out all of the passages and sentences that sung to me and let it stand at that. Why? Because I know my limitations; I know that when I love something on a level that has nothing to do with thought and everything to do with feeling, I have no hope of articulating why it captured me so. I’ll try and I’ll hope you’ll bear with me.
The synopsis above, which was actually tacked on to the film adaptation of Schaefer’s novel, manages to capture the bare bones plot of the story, but can’t and doesn’t come close to defining it. I can understand why: it’s deceptively difficult to pin down the heart of the story when so much of it exists as subtext. I could say that it’s about loyalty and shades of love; that it’s about taking a stand against bully tactics that would displace a hard-working family and douse the dreams of a fledgling community of farmers and cow hands. I could say that it’s about a weary man trying to put distance between his past and his present; that it’s about recognizing your own kind, and accepting family where you find them. I could say all that, and you know what? It makes for a shallow, woefully incomplete description.
Bob, the young narrator of Shane, has a narrative voice that shines like a shoe under spit or polish; it’s simple and honest, conveying the innocence of youth alongside the burgeoning awareness of adulthood. Simply put, it’s effective. And remarkable. I’ll tell you this: through Bob’s eyes, I saw clearly and absolutely Shane riding his horse up the road that first time, approaching the Starrett’s farm, and I will never forget the sight. Shortly after that first glimpse, Bob’s had a chance to take in the stranger’s travel-tainted clothes, and thinks to himself: “…a kind of magnificence remained and with it a hint of men and manners alien to my limited boy’s experience.” A hint of men and manners. It strikes an odd shiver in me, reading that; I can’t explain it. But it was as Bob continued his study that I realized it would be near to impossible to not fall for Shane.
“Then I forgot the clothes in the impact of the man himself…I could read the endurance in the lines of that dark figure and the quiet power in its effortless, unthinking adjustment to every movement of the tired horse.”
Shane is that inscrutable man so many of us are drawn to without reservation. He’s that man who brings to bear his own code of ethics; that strong, quiet man who, once he’s accepted you as his own, protects you with a fierce pride, and lets you see a side of him that no one else would ever get close to. Shane wears sadness as assuredly as his gun, and just as infrequently. He pays on his debts, takes time to ruffle a young boy’s hair, and puts in a day’s back-breaking work without complaint. And then there’s this:
“He did not mind what they thought of him. Since his session with Chris he seemed to have won a kind of inner peace. He was as alert and watchful as ever, but there was a serenity in him that had erased entirely the old tension. I think he did not care what anyone anywhere thought of him. Except us, his folks. And he knew that with us he was one of us, unchangeable and always.
But he did care what they thought of father.”
If you know me at all – or maybe you’ve been reading this blog long enough to see the pattern – you know that a bond between two strong men reduces me to a puddle of sighing goo. The respect and admiration that draws Shane and Joe Starrett to stand side by side drives so much of the story, but rarely manifests in the lines themselves; between those lines is where the beauty and emotion lies, and where words begin to fail me. About all I can manage is this: That friendship, for lack of a more accurate or insightful word, was undoubtedly my most subjective favorite aspect of the novel.
Shane is representative of the old-fashioned ideal of men being men: tough, stand-up types who shoulder their responsibilities and take personally any affront to their character. It’s not a throwback characterization, considering the time during which it was written and the time period it depicts – and still I’ve seen the type in contemporary fiction, though perhaps not as well done or authentic – but if it puts you off, consider yourself duly advised. Also, while Shane is male-centric, the one woman portrayed in the story – that would be Marian Starrett – has a backbone and a voice. When Marian spoke, Joe and Shane listened; her men, including Bob, showed respect for the contributions she made to farm and family. At times it was clear that Marian was being indulged by her male counterparts – in that old-fashioned way of men being men – but she (and her opinions) were valued.
The story’s pace wasn’t fast or slow; it was persistent. It was more contemplative than action-packed; when the action came, the descriptions of the fight sequences were cinematic, and it was hard to believe they were written in 1949. It’s almost unfathomable to me that a reader would find Shane boring, having struck me as completely as it did, but I have to allow for the possibility. Just as I have to admit: if someone had told me that I would love a western novel as much as I did this one, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I did love it.
I really did.