My all-time favorite romance is somewhat unusual. It's a book called Shane written by Jack Schaefer back in 1949. Most people might say, "Hey, that's not a romance, that's a western." But this book is about a very powerful love triangle, and yes, it's true, it is a western and the hero and the heroine don't end up together at the end. But I learned an awful lot about creating a romantic hero from this book. (And I've gone on to win RT's W.I.S.H. award for six of my last seven books!)
Here's the premise: Joe and Marion Starrett are farmers, one family in a group of homesteaders who have fenced off and built a home on the range. As to be expected, the cattle barons who, for years, have used the wide open plains to feed their herd are not too happy about those fences. Trouble is a-brewin', and folks are talkin' about sellin' out and gittin' before the shootin' starts.
And then Shane rides into town.
Despite the fact that he doesn't wear a gun, he's clearly a gunslinger, and a durn dangerous one at that.
The setup is pure dime novel. At first glance, it seems like a clear cut case of good versus evil, right versus wrong, good guys in the white hats, bad guys in the black. But every time I reread the book, I find myself intrigued by the multitude of layers Jack Schaefer has woven into this fast-paced, exquisitely written story.
First of all, the book is written in the first person, from the point of view of Bob Starrett, Joe and Marion's young son. If Bob doesn't see or hear it, it's not in the book. But Schaefer is clever; action that takes place in town while the Starrett's are at their house is revealed to the reader through the out-of-breath words of another homesteader who witnessed Shane's run-in with the cattle baron's men. It's exciting and fast moving and a refreshing change of pace from the first person point of view.
But that first person point of view is incredibly effective. Since Bob is only about ten years old, there's an entire layer of the story that he overhears and sees yet doesn't understand. And in his innocence he merely reports the words said, reports the emotions in the room, yet he doesn't label or judge -- or condemn.
For instance, there's definitely something going on between Shane and Marion. It's a powerful thing, even though they're alone together only twice in the entire book. Whatever they feel is never acted on, barely even spoken of, yet it's always there, between them. And it's between them and Marion's husband, Joe, too.
Joe knows quite well about the feelings between Shane, the man who has become his trusted friend, and his beloved wife. He knows, and being the man he is, he even understands.
It's an odd love triangle, and one to be admired because all three characters are so thoroughly honorable.
If there were ever a college course on Romance Heroes 101, Shane would surely be required reading. Joe Starrett is as much a hero as Shane is -- they are merely two different types. If I were casting Shane: The Movie, I'd choose Mel Gibson for the part of Joe. Joe is the good, sturdy, honest hero, quick to smile and filled with a love of life. And as for Shane himself, well, that would have to be Ralph Fiennes. Quiet and mysterious, Shane is the brooding hero, tortured by the darkness that never fails to invade his life.
The fact that the emotion and attraction between Shane and Marion are never acted upon and barely spoken of leaves the reader with a sense of the bittersweet. But that's mostly on Shane's part. After all, Marion's left with Mel Gibson -- you can't feel too bad for her!
But the book is called Shane, and it's Shane who leaves me breathless even after countless readings. Jack Schaefer leaves me breathless, too -- for creating such a perfect romantic hero. Shane is a multifaceted, complicated man, filled with countless contradictions. Each time I read the book, I am struck by how effortlessly Schaefer has created such a hero without ever writing from Shane's point of view!
Each time I set out to create a dark, tormented hero of my own, I think about Shane, and about the way Schaefer could evoke from the reader such emotions as admiration, respect, and -- by the time the book ends -- sheer adoration for a man who was a hired killer. Shane is a fabulous blend of God and Superhero, but his suffering is pure mortal human. And it's that humanity, that anguish over the struggle to do right when every cell in his body wants to do otherwise, that sets Shane head and shoulders above the rest.
If there were one thing in Shane that I could change, it would be Marion's pivotal scene with the apple pie. Surely there could be something else Schaefer could have used to show her stubborn strength and spirit. But since he wrote this book in the dark ages of the 1940's, I'll let it slide.
Shane is a book I read over and over. I keep coming back to it, and each time I reread it, I marvel at how well it's written. Give it a try.
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