Monday, August 15, 2011

"First Blood" by Jack Schaefer (1949)

Originally published in 1953, First Blood was Jack Schaefer’s follow-up to the immensely successful Shane, which had been published four years prior. 1953 was also the same year that the movie of Shane, with Alan Ladd immortalizing the title role, hit the big screen. Like Schaefer’s earlier book, First Blood is a coming of age story, except this time the young boy is a young man.

Jess Harker has just turned twenty, and he feels that life is passing him by while he drives an empty stagecoach with tired horses along a pointless route, while an old man who rarely speaks sits beside him with a shotgun. Jess wants to drive on the big trails, with his idol right beside him—Race Crim, the best shotgun messenger on the whole line. Jess’ other idol is Tom Davisson, the local sheriff, who is always giving the young driver advice, even when he doesn’t ask for it. Davisson treats Jess like a kid, whereas Race treats Jess like a grown man.

Jess gets his chance to prove himself when he is asked to drive an important shipment of gold. With Race sitting beside him on the box, it seems like a dream come true…until someone ambushes the stage, gets away with the money, and kills some of Jess’ passengers. As the town bands together in search of the outlaws and the money, Jess sees the divide between the lawless Race and the law-abiding Davisson grow further and further apart. Jess knows that soon he will have to pick a side, and he only hopes that he picks the right side and will live to tell the tale.

First Blood is a perfect companion piece to Shane. Even though the characters aren’t the same, both books share similar constructs and themes. They’re both about growing up, and coming to terms with the realization that even our heroes are mortal humans. There are significant differences between the books, too. Bob MacPherson, the young boy who narrates Shane, was mainly on the sidelines, studying his father and Shane. Here, Jess similarly watches and compares his two roles models—Race Crim and Tom Davisson—but the difference is that now he, too, must play a role in the drama. He has to decide which path to follow. When it comes time for the final shootout, this time the gun is in Jess’ hand, and his life depends on the choice he makes.

Another interesting aspect of these two books is the way that Schaefer deals with the archetype of the gunfighter. In Shane, Schaefer humanized the shootist, made him mortal and valiant, and turned him into a mythological icon. In First Blood, however, Schaefer demythologizes the gunfighter. While Race isn’t exactly the same wandering gunhand as Shane, they both make their living pulling the trigger. As the story progresses, Jess comes to realize that living and dying by the gun isn’t as admirable and enviable as he once thought. Perhaps it is a sign of the frontier dying, but Jess is now thinking in terms of longevity and career instead of free roaming excitement.

One of Jack Schaefer’s skills was capturing that youthful moment when one’s ideals are at their pinnacle, and then puncturing the bubble as reality sets in. He renders the moral confusion and ethical uncertainty in all their complexities, without making the dilemma seem stale or contrived. Schaefer understands young protagonists and the difficult, disorienting process of becoming a man. First Blood is a terrific novel that combines stirring Western action with a sincere coming-of-age story. Fans of Shane that haven’t delved deeper into the world of Jack Schaefer would certainly enjoy this short novel.

4 comments:

  1. I didn't even know about this book. Interesting that the title was used so effectively by David Morrel much later.

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  2. It's new t me also, and one I'm interested in reading. It's probably been 35 years since I read Shane.

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  3. Very nicely done review. The parallel to SHANE is a good point. I see Schaefer in both these stories working through issues that have to do with postwar re-entry, men returning from the killing fields to life in peacetime. Not an easy transition.

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  4. That's a great point, Ron. I hadn't thought of the books in those terms before. Both books share the common theme of the trauma of first-hand violence. Not only is Shane haunted by his violent past, but even the young boy is deeply affected by the brutality he witnesses. In First Blood, he is no longer just a witness, but also must commit a violent act himself -- literally killing his naive dreams.

    A number of Westerns I've read from this period have this same sense that violence isn't something romantic or heroic anymore.

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