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Shane: the chance another kid never had

January 21, 2019

 

ONE WORD and one syllable - his name - brings the whole man into view again, riding towards the small boy in his father’s corral in Wyoming in 1889.

Shane.

The setting is the Old West, in that crucial period when the homesteaders, the sodbusters, with their fences and their kitchen gardens and their corn and their desire for schools and churches and the railroad, come to grips with the big ranchers who have carved up the open plain among themselves.

The plot finds the vulnerable pitched against superior odds, violent men, and overcoming them.

The funny thing about the vulnerable, though, is that while they might live in groups, in small clusters of farmsteads, they die singly, like everyone else. Like Ernie Wright, a farmer goaded into pulling his gun against a hired killer.

But out at Joe Starrett’s place – his self-respect, his family and his life at risk every time he takes the chuck-wagon into town – there is more on his side than the logic of civilisation everyone else depends on.

Lean, slight, graceful, magnificent. Shane.

Most people know of him through George Stevens’s 1953 western which quickly became a classic – Alan Ladd in pale buckskin, Van Heflin as the sturdy Joe, Jean Arthur as his wife Marion, Jack Palance as the grinning gunman, Jack Wilson.

And the tragic Brandon de Wilde as Joey, the boy though whose eyes the film tells its story, and who was killed in a car crash at the age of 30.

But few know the short novel, published by Jack Schaefer in 1949, on which the movie was based.

In that world, the gunman is Stark Wilson and the boy is Bob.

And it is a masterpiece, as powerful, evocative and memorable as any writing could hope to be. In the central character, Schaefer creates a figure to rank with Jay Gatsby and Philip Marlowe as American icons of the lost and lonely.

But neither of those commands such awe, such fidelity and such love from the reader. From its very first line, the novel is an intense and unforgettable lesson in heroism.

‘He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.’

I was lucky. I was 10 when Shane rode into Downpatrick in a paperback in 1972, years before I even knew there was a movie. Then and since then, it’s the Shane of the novel who makes me shiver with delight when I think of him, easy in the saddle.

And he’s a world away from the pale skin and blond hair of Alan Ladd.

In a dark serge overcoat, dark trousers held at the waist by a wide belt and tucked into tall boots of a soft black leather tooled in intricate design, rich brown finespun linen shirt, black silk kerchief round his neck and a black, soft hat with a wide curling brim, Shane is as edgy and ordinary and dark and dangerous and awesome as Elvis.

I don't have to anticipate here the several critical conversations that the novel should prompt. They are all there already in any case, for those interested, latent in the narrative, as they are in most elemental sagas. 

I read the book at least 20 times over my teenage years, and so closely I could recite the first page-and-a-half by heart, savouring the impact of the man who understood the importance of things – most poignant of all, how though he might use his particular gifts to secure a future for decent people, those very gifts meant he could never share it – and who set off in the failing light to sort out Wilson and Fletcher in Grafton’s store with Bob running and stumbling behind him.

What Bob sees at the store is the stuff of legend. Through his eyes - because the magic of the hero is for that small boy's eyes alone - the reader enters briefly into and shares the time and space of a god.

And every day of my life since, I feel, I’ve been running behind Shane, never catching him up.

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