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Shane ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (18)

    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 in 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, I could not have told why, struck
    through me there in the warm and open sun.

Well, we all know why that chill ran through little Bob as Shane rode up to the Starrett homestead in the Wyoming Territory in the summer of 1889, because Shane was a lethal, albeit reluctant, gunslinger.  This slender American classic tells the story, familiar to every cultured American from the great George Stevens' movie (1953), of how Shane, fleeing a mysterious but obviously violent past, was befriended by the Starretts and stayed on to help them fight off the predatory intentions of the valley's big rancher and his evil henchmen.  It is a story that is central to the American mythos.

The great Westerns penetrate deep within the American psyche; they strike a chord that lies somewhere within our national character, just waiting to be plucked.  I believe that their unique power derives from a truly elemental facet of democracy--that in order for men to enjoy the freedom that a democracy allows, they must be able to depend on the fundamental goodness of their fellow men.  An unyielding, self enforcing morality is a prerequisite for a political system based on liberty; men are unwilling to limit the coercive power of government when they live in fear of one another.

Certainly the Western and the code of the West represent a sanitized and romanticized view of the Frontier and the men who tamed it, but it is a romance that serves the democratic purpose.  These morality tales are instructive and aspirational.   Of course men like Shane are archetypes in a kind of a national myth making:

    There were sharp hidden hardnesses in him.  But these were not for us.  He was dangerous as
    mother had said.  But not to us as father too had said.  And he was no longer a stranger.  He was a
    man like a father in whom a boy could believe in the simple knowing that what was beyond
    comprehension was still clean and solid and right.

This is a little boy's impossible view of a hero, but here we see that the character of Joe Starrett is equally important.  Joe Starrett is a simple sod farmer, but he is kind and decent and honest and courageous, the equal of Shane in every respect except for speed on the draw.  Joe is the true yeoman hero of this tale and one of the duties that Shane performs is to demonstrate this fact to young Bob (and to us).

Stories like Shane are a product of a time when Americans genuinely believed in democratic ideals and in the American Dream.  They express our native confidence that we can produce men who will measure up these standards.  It is no coincidence that the Western died in the mid-60's along with the sense of confidence in our national purpose.  It is also unsurprising that it was Ronald Reagan, that hero of myriad Westerns, who stanched the bleeding and made people believe again, however briefly.

Here is just one other example of the instructive nature of these stories.  This is Shane, teaching Bob to shoot:

    "Listen, Bob.  A gun is just a tool.  No better and no worse than any other tool, a shovel--or an axe
    or a saddle or a stove or anything.  Think of it always that way.  A gun is as good--and as bad--as
    the man who carries it.  Remember that."

Think of the level of personal responsibility that this attitude assumes.  Contrast it with the near fascist drive to abolish gun rights today.  The underlying argument of the forces of gun control is that guns are evil in and of themselves, regardless of the men who wield them.  This is part and parcel of the Democrat myth of the '90s.  Which do you think is more likely to foster good citizenship, holding guns responsible for violence or holding men responsible?

As for me, I choose the classic Westerns and the democratic ideals that they convey, over the moral relativism that permeates our current culture.


Grade: (A+)


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