Friday, March 15, 2013

Why Westerns? -- Shane

Shane is my favorite Western novel.  It's not a complicated novel, and it was written for Jack Schaefer's son.  Most people are aware of the movie with Alan Ladd, and that's fine. It's a really good movie.  But the book is better.

Schaefer was a newspaper man living in Cleveland, when he wrote the book, and had never been west at that point in his life--yet the book is loaded with excellent description and details of frontier life in Wyoming.  The man did his research, and brought his straightforward Midwestern voice and writing skills to the task.

A couple of things I really like about the book:  You never know Shane's back story.  It's not overloaded with details that get in the way of the story.  Nor do you know where Shane is off to in the end.  He exists in the story, in the moment. His past is as much a mystery as his future, but there's no mistaking the core of his character. 

Honestly, I pick up too many books these days, Westerns and otherwise, and the author immediately shows the main character on a ridge, or in a car on the highway, then spends the next five pages telling the reader how he/she got there--what the back story is before the story even starts.  Take a cue from Schaefer.  All of that unnecessary information gets in the way of the story.   

Here's the opening: 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.

The narration is the other thing I like.  It's a boy's story told from an adult point of view.  There's violence, sexual tension, and fear, all funneled through the eyes of a child, but yet, you never feel like you're reading a child's book.  That's a skill that's hard to achieve, and I think Schaefer was a natural. Harper Lee did it, and I put Schaefer in the same league.

There are more complicated Westerns, ones that I love--but I will always say that Shane is my touchstone, the one Western that I think everyone should read.  It is as perfect a Western as there is, and it's one of the reasons why I love the genre as much as I do.

If you've never read it, maybe you should check it out.   

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