Of all genres of writing, one of the most elusive is the Western. It is a genre that always makes its readers aware of a violence ever brooding in the background. Yet, when the form rises towards its own excellence, the hot burst of color expected by the reader may be said to be lurid, thrilling, and addictive—but irregular marks in a vast portrait of detail which gives patient regard to herding cattle, long rides, homesteads, and of course the western landscape itself. In the best Westerns, the protagonist also resembles the land, surging with energy under a languid, almost lazy exterior. Shane, by Jack Schaefer, is such a novel. Behind the details can be felt conflict, mounting action, a love story, the gun, and a man—all present by their seeming absence.
One of the best ways to approach any Western is through the eyes of its ideal audience, the young boy. In Shane, this is also the point of view of the narrator, Bob Starrett. With Bob, the reader encounters a mysterious rider, notes his faded clothing, and then forgets it “in the impact of the man himself…the endurance in the lines of that dark figure…the quiet, unthinking adjustment to every movement of the tired horse.” Throughout the summer and the story, the rider becomes no less an enigma, epitomized by his answer when Bob’s father, Joe, asks him his name: “Call me Shane.” Throughout the book, Bob is as entranced by, as he is terrified of, the stranger.
Under the appearances of everyday frontier life, Bob catches short glimpses of the conflict that will ensue when his father hires Shane as a hand: the conflict between ranchers and homesteaders, between the ranging way of life and the settled, the conflict; in his parents’ hearts, over the meaning of the presence of this man, and within his own heart, between his father and Shane. Shane is a man from that old world of cowboys, but he works for a farmer. Shane, the frontiersman and adventurer, not only takes up the work of the common man, but also excels at it. Bob notes early in the book: “He was shaped in some firm forging of past circumstance for other things.” The fortune of the common man is upheld by the strength of the uncommon man. For the defense of democracy, an aristocrat is required.
Although Bob falls in love with Shane as a man of action, gun play occurs only in the boy’s imagination for most of the book. The intrinsic action undergirding the steady, calm stranger only occurs in glimpses, as when he teaches the boy how to draw, or while pulling out a giant root, or confronting men who try to make sharp deals with his father. These glimpses of terror and violence are soothed only by remembering his father’s words to Marian, his mother: “He’s dangerous all right…But not to us, my dear.”
As in any good Western, there is a love story; or rather, there are love stories. They are hidden deep inside the characters, emerging to be transfigured like the man Shane himself. There is Bob’s love for Shane, a love that prepares and enkindles the boy’s deeper love for his father. It is a love that helps him in finding a way for “living out his boyhood” and for growing “straight inside as man should.” There is a potentially adulterous love that seems to threaten the sanctity of the family, but ultimately ends with the kind of self-sacrifice that only a good and restrained loved can achieve.
While guns abound, they do not blaze until the final chapters. Shane’s gun is sensed throughout the book, but only appears in the final pages to disappear along with the man when the need and hour of trial have passed.
As Christians we can meditate on the Lord, who seemed to have left us, while yet becoming present throughout His Church. Shane is like Christ in this way. As Marian Starret points out at the end of the book, “He’s not gone. He’s here, in this place, in this place he gave us. He’s all around us and in us, and he always will be.”
While it may be foolish to see Christs everywhere we look, it is equally foolish not to see Christ in those who truly resemble our Redeemer. And while comparison of Shane with Christ is just that—a comparison—there are striking similarities that point us to Christ and particularly to the mystery of presence in absence. Shane, like Christ, is a hero who took up a radically different life: one that, in a way, called for an abandonment, a relinquishing of status and power—Christ as a man, Shane as a farmer. Such a hero is a man who is better than anyone else, but who uses his superiority for others. Finally, through his self-sacrifice he becomes more present. His seeming absence draws out greater hope and providence, stronger evidence of the moral power of goodness than his physical presence: a paradox worthy of meditation as we travel the dusty trails of this earth.