Last Friday, having finished my assigned reading, I found myself faced with a very rare situation: I had nothing to read on the way home from work. I scanned my office shelves looking for something on my New Year’s resolution reading list. Inexplicably in the mood for a western, I was hoping I had a copy of True Grit. I didn’t find one, but I did have a copy of Shane—another seminal western novel that I managed to miss growing up. Not the book I was looking for but it still fit the bill. (Shane also had the advantage of being extremely short. I never know how long these lulls will last.)
My bus home was too crowded for reading—I was standing, I had groceries—so I didn’t crack the book until Sunday. Once I started, however, I read it straight through. It was a ton of fun and I enjoyed it on many levels. It’s a great YA novel, of course, as young Bob spends a lot of time observing and trying to figure out the adults. He often realizes that he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but he just can’t decipher the grownups’ unspoken language. And the plot is just classic western, pitting a ruthless cattle baron against timid homesteaders; the homesteaders find a reluctant champion in the gunslinger trying to escape his violent past. Shane, of course, was reacting to literature before it, but clearly a lot of later westerns were responding to it, too. As I read it I had a constant sense of deja vu.
But I think my favorite part comes before the main conflict is expressed, when Shane and Starrett dig up the stump in the back yard. Starrett is showing off his spread to his visitor, the mysterious Shane, when he sees Shane looking at the stump. The big, obstinate stump has been nagging at Starrett and Shane understands that; when he picks up an axe and starts chopping at the roots, Starrett starts in, too, and the day suddenly becomes dominated by the epic struggle between the two men and a piece of dead wood.
There’s so much packed into this chapter: Shane’s inner desperation, the unspoken conflict between the two men for Mrs. Starrett’s affections, the homesteader’s desire to tame the land, and more. And all of it is shown through action, not pedantically stated. But it’s also just a great piece of writing about the simple conflict of man versus stump. There’s a lot of building tension and then, finally, release–when the men conquer the stump there’s a shared sense of accomplishment for all the characters. Their pleasure, and mine, made me muse about life then and now. What kinds of accomplishments in our lives today have such a clear connection between effort and achievement and deliver such visceral satisfaction to those concerned? (The Facebook version: Joe Starrett and Shane dug up a stump today! 17 people like this.)
The delayed but rich gratification extends to the prose, too. So often, contemporary novels spell out the conflict in the first chapter or even on the first page. But Schaefer takes his time with the setting, the characters, and the plot, not even getting to the deadly main conflict until halfway through the book. It was a book written in a simpler time, when readers had fewer distractions, but it’s right for the story, too. If Schaefer had had some hired hands ragging on Shane on page one, then the scene where they dig out the stump, and the bonding that it engenders for Shane and his adoptive family, wouldn’t have been nearly as affecting.
You could say that life on the frontier was so boring that even excavating a stump seemed exciting. But you could also say that Schaefer did something right if reading about it is still exciting all these years later.