Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel, “Shane,” is set in the late 19th century in the Wyoming territory. The plot is a common one found in many Westerns. Luke Fletcher is a cattle driver who is hungry for all the range he can control and willing to do whatever it takes to move the homesteaders, who have legally acquired “his” land 160 acres at a time, off their homesteads so his cattle can run free.
What makes “Shane” unusual, beyond the quality of Schaefer’s writing, is Shane himself and the story being told through the eyes of the 11-year-old protagonist, Bob Starrett. Shane is mysterious from the moment he rides onto Joe and Marian Starrett’s ranch, looking for water and maybe a meal. And while polite, he is unwilling to share anything of his past. He hires on at the ranch and is dragged into the dispute between the homesteaders, led by Joe Starrett, and Fletcher.
We see all of this through the eyes and thoughts of young Bob Starrett. He is awed by Shane’s strength, both at the ranch and in a fight. At the same time, he learns of a different kind of strength as he watches his father defend their property and their way of life.
Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and after graduating from Oberlin College and attending Columbia University (leaving without his Master of Arts), he went to work for United Press, the first of many journalism jobs he would hold. “Shane” was published in 1949 and is noteworthy not only for its quality, but also because it was Schaefer’s first novel and when he wrote it he had never once been to the western United States, though he did move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1955.
Schaefer was known primarily for his Westerns and received the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award. His novel “Monte Walsh” was twice made into a movie, once starring Lee Marvin in 1970 and then starring Tom Selleck in 2003. He also wrote children’s books, the most well-known being “Stubby Pringle’s Christmas.”
When I started reading “Shane,” it was with the idea that it was a good children’s/teen’s entry for the Western anthology I was co-curating, “52 Weeks • 52 Western Novels: Old Favorites and New Discoveries.” And it is. It’s an excellent way to introduce younger readers to the Western genre — especially since there is a great movie version they can watch after they finish the book. But about two-thirds of the way through the book, it became much more than that.
Watching Shane and Joe Starrett through Bob’s eyes caused me to look at myself through Bob, but also through my own son’s eyes. It’s good for a man to do that every once in a while, and if you’re able to be candid with yourself, it can be a troubling exercise but enlightening as well. Many of us would like to be more like Shane or Joe, but fall short. Being reminded on occasion can be motivating.
The 1953 movie, starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin, is generally considered to be among the greatest Westerns of all time. In 2007, the American Film Institute had “Shane” ranked as the 45th greatest American movie. George Stevens produced and directed the film, which also earned Loyal Griggs an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1954. Nominations were also earned for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (two), Best Director, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.