|And by twenty-one all that he knew was the power of the gun
|Lowdenjim, "Slip Jigs and Reels"|
I just finished re-reading Jack Schaefer's Shane (1949) for the first time in more than twenty years. I found a critical edition—the restored "words that might offend" are about a dozen incidences of "hell" and "damn," edited out when the novel was reprinted in 1954 and kept bowdlerized in school editions since. Which is almost certainly how I first encountered it, since it was assigned reading in my seventh-grade English class. I can't remember what we were intended to learn from it.1 Mostly I remember that my mother showed me the 1953 film afterward and the only actor whose memory stayed with me was Alan Ladd even though he didn't look at all like the dark, wiry, dangerously black-clad Shane of the book. But I'd liked the story and I wasn't at all sure how it was going to have held up, being an archetypal Western written in the first half of the twentieth century. I am pleased to report that not only has Shane not been visited by the suck fairy, it's a lot more interesting than I was able to appreciate in seventh grade or really have the attention to analyze at the end of this very sleepless week. Stylistically, I didn't expect the language to remind me of Le Guin. I think it's the deliberate simplicity that handles details and abstractions with the same degree of significance; the first-person narrative looks back on a life-changing summer of the narrator's childhood with all the experience of the decades since, but reports only what he understood at the time and lets the adult reader infer the more complex connections that were only starting to become visible to eight- or nine-year-old Bob Starrett in 1889. I have the same kind of double vision, coming back to the story all these years later. At the age of eleven or twelve, I responded most strongly to the supernatural overtones of Shane. He's human, he bleeds, he loves, he's good with children, he has to learn about farming to stay with the Starretts, he has a sense of humor and a lot of believably written damage, but he's also the stranger who comes out nowhere to perform a heroic deed at his own cost and vanish when his work is done—the man in black, the man with no name, an apparition of a mythically violent world already passing away. He appears out of the clarity of sunlight on the road and disappears when a cloud crosses the moon. It was easy for me to imagine him as some aspect of the land, a mythago of the American West if I'd known the word then. The original serial published in Argosy in 1946 went by the title Rider from Nowhere. As an adult, I'm left struck by the intimacy between the three adults in the narrator's life, a state of affairs which the boy who loves and idolizes the mysterious, competent, self-contained stranger finds so natural, it doesn't even rate remarking on: how easily his parents accommodate Shane as an integral part of the household, a tacit third parent to Bob and a kind of shadow partner to each of them; he is easier in their company than he's been with himself in a long time, healing into someone who isn't always combat-scanning his environment for danger even if he will never take a seat with his back to the door, and in return they are inspired to be the best versions of their already brave and affectionate selves around him, recognizing his trust for the rarity it is and not wanting to let it down. The attraction between Shane and Marian Starrett is a binding between all three of them, not a source of rivalry or tension. "Did ever a woman have two such men?" she exults and laments after Shane and Joe have taken down a barful of bullies in tandem; her husband's response is the notably non-territorial, "Don't fret yourself, Marian. I'm man enough to know a better when his trail meets mine. Whatever happens will be all right." He carried Shane out of the bar after the fight, gathering the smaller, more badly battered man gently into his arms like, the narrator thinks, "he did me when I stayed up too late and got all drowsy and had to be carried to bed." Later in the novel, after a close brush with a hired killer whose provocatively crude remarks about Marian almost led to violence on the part of both men, Bob watches all three of his parents worry about one another:
It was only then that I realized mother was gripping my shoulders so that they hurt. She dropped on a chair and held me to her. We could hear father and Shane on the porch.
"He'd have drilled you, Joe, before you could have brought the gun up and pumped in a shell."
"But you, you crazy fool!" Father was covering his feelings with a show of exasperation. "You'd have made him plug you just so I'd have a chance to get him."
Mother jumped up. She pushed me aside. She flared at them from the doorway. "And both of you would have acted like fools just because he said that about me. I'll have you two know that if it's got to be done, I can take being insulted just as much as you can."
Peering around her, I saw them gaping at her in astonishment. "But, Marian," father objected mildly, coming to her. "What better reason could a man have?"
"Yes," said Shane gently. "What better reason?" He was not looking just at mother. He was looking at the two of them.
Shane leaves behind a lot more than the chance of a life without violence when he rides away the novel's end. It's a much more muted ending than the film's, too, underscoring the Starretts' decision to stay on the farm that Shane sacrificed his best self for as a form of keeping faith with him—"So you'd run out on Shane just when he's really here to stay!"—and finally shifting the narrative into the tangle of stories that grew up around the stranger after his departure, each more outlandish than the last, none of which bother Bob because he knows none of them get anywhere near the truth. "He belonged to me, to father and mother and me, and nothing could ever spoil that." That interests me now because I can think of at least two other novels I read early which close with this same kind of dissolve into myth that the reader knows to recognize as a normal human tendency, but also not trust as the final word. I just can't remember if I identified it as such at the time. It should not surprise me that Shane the novel is in part a story about stories, though, because so many of the narratives I love are. I'm not sure the film is. I should probably rewatch it to be sure. I should get some sleep first.
1. It was my first year in a public school rather than the alternative private school I'd spent my first six grades in; I was nonplussed by a lot of the curriculum. We read at least one awesomely depressing short Steinbeck novel—either The Red Pony (1933) or The Pearl (1947), which in combination with Of Mice and Men (1937) the next year convinced me that I hated Steinbeck until I discovered Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954) in college—and some short fiction it's difficult for me to recall because I always read the rest of the anthologies around the assigned stories, so Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and Ray Bradbury's "Fever Dream" might have been required reading or they might just have been adjacent to O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation." I think we must have read Theodore Taylor's The Cay (1969) because I have vague memories of making a map of the island. Without going through boxes in my parents' house, I have no idea what else. In the middle school library on my own time I read Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), which almost certainly influenced me more than anything I read for school that year, God help me.