I was about thirteen years old the first time I read Shane, the same age as Bob Starrett, the narrator of this wonderful novel by Jack Schaefer. I didn’t live on a farm, or a ranch, like Bob. I lived in a house in the city. The only livestock we had was a dog, a cat, and a guinea pig. The only crops we raised were front and back lawns, which I had to mow every Saturday with a push mower that needed sharpening. I’d like to say that I enjoyed mowing the lawn, but that wouldn’t be truthful.
What I liked doing on Saturdays was swinging onto my bike and pedaling around the neighborhood with my friends. More often than not these rides ended up at our public library, where I would check out two or three novels, which I hoped would last me until the following Saturday if I read really slow. That rarely happened. I wasn’t a particularly fast reader, but I made up for my slow pace by spending most of my free time with my nose in a book. And I had a lot of free time, because we didn’t have iAnything back then, and only three channels on our black-and-white television sets.
Reading was nothing like mowing the lawn. It was not a chore. Reading was joyful. Opening a new book was like an all-expenses-paid vacation on a time machine to anywhere in the universe, past, present, or future. I saw the world through the narrators’ eyes. I laughed and cried with them, thought their thoughts, felt their passions, fears, and desires. In other words, I became the heroes of the stories I read.
As a result, I usually finished reading my two or three novels by Tuesday or Wednesday night, which left me without a library book to read for two or three days, but I was far from bookless.
My parents did not read aloud to me when I was growing up, but they did the next best thing. They read to themselves every evening—seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. They did not go to the library to get their books. They bought and read paperbacks. Thousands of them, or so it seemed when I was thirteen.
More than any single thing in my young life, I think watching my parents read is what made me into a lifelong reader. I was desperate to learn what they found so interesting between the covers of those books they read every evening, hour after hour. What made them smile, and frown, and laugh as they flipped the pages, completely ignoring their charming and amusing middle child?
Stacks of mysteries, thrillers, adventures, sci-fi, and Westerns were scattered throughout the house. My parents expected all of their children to read, just as they expected us to eat all of the food on our plates, and we were free to read any book we could get our hands on.
One bookless Wednesday evening, thinking I should have checked out thicker novels from the library on Saturday, I was wandering around the house looking for something to read. That’s when I found Jack Schaefer’s Shane.
I liked the cover. I liked Westerns. I read the back, then opened the cover and started to read. When I got to the part of the book where Shane first rides up to the Starrett ranch, I was hooked.
“My name’s Starrett,” said father. “Joe Starrett. This here,” waving at me, “is Robert MacPherson Starrett. Too much name for a boy. I make it Bob.”
The stranger nodded again. “Call me Shane,” he said. Then to me: “Bob it is. You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.”
It was not a question. It was a simple statement. “Yes . . .” I stammered. “Yes. I was.”
“Right,” he said. “I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.”
I immediately identified with both Bob and Shane, because I was a watcher just like they were. If watching my parents read made me a reader, then watching and listening to my parents, their friends, my friends, and complete strangers is what made me a writer.
I took the book down to my room and read far into the night, falling asleep with dreams filled with the squeak of old saddle leather, the warmth and smell of open cooking hearths, and the sound of dueling axes as Shane and Mr. Starrett cut out that ancient stump, which is still one of my favorite scenes in any book I have ever read.
I read Shane again twenty years later, wondering if it would hold up. It did. In fact, it was even better than I remembered. Jack Schaefer’s use of language to create quiet tension and acute danger is unsurpassed. It’s a story of love and honor in a time when those two words had a sharper meaning.
My life has changed a great deal since the first time I read Shane. I live on a farm now. We have a few cows. We grow hay and apples.
I just finished reading Shane for the third time, and, yes, the third read was even better than the first two.
I’m sitting on my back deck looking out at our upper field as I write this. The wind moves the tall grass in waves. The cows lie in the shade beneath the big oak tree down by a cabin that’s been here forever. How does a great novel affect the life of its reader?
Apparently more than we know.
—Roland Smith, July 2013
He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuckwagon. 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.
In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.
He came steadily on, straight through the town without slackening pace, until he reached the fork a half-mile below our place. One branch turned left across the river ford and on to Luke Fletcher’s big spread. The other bore ahead along the right bank where we homesteaders had pegged our claims in a row up the valley. He hesitated briefly, studying the choice, and moved again steadily on our side.
As he came near, what impressed me first was his clothes. He wore dark trousers of some serge material tucked into tall boots and held at the waist by a wide belt, both of a soft black leather tooled in intricate design. A coat of the same dark material as the trousers was neatly folded and strapped to his saddle-roll. His shirt was finespun linen, rich brown in color. The handkerchief knotted loosely around his throat was black silk. His hat was not the familiar Stetson, not the familiar gray or muddy tan. It was a plain black, soft in texture, unlike any hat I had ever seen, with a creased crown and a wide curling brim swept down in front to shield the face.
All trace of newness was long since gone from these things. The dust of distance was beaten into them. They were worn and stained and several neat patches showed on the shirt. Yet a kind of magnificence remained and with it a hint of men and manners alien to my limited boy’s experience.
Then I forgot the clothes in the impact of the man himself. He was not much above medium height, almost slight in build. ...