Former president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “We can draw lessons from the past, but we cannot live in it;” he would certainly know something about regretting the past. Among his many acts as President, he is remembered by most for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War, from 16,000 American soldiers in 1963 to 550,000 in early 1968. The fictional character of John Wade lives with the scars of this war.
The novel In the Lake of the Woods documents how the sights, smells, and sounds of the massacre of Mai Lai and John’s denial of this life-altering event leads to his own destruction. Conversely, the fictional character of Shane (from the novel of the same name) also attempts to hide from what we can only imagine is a bloody past, but finds a way to use the events that have shaped him for a better purpose, giving him a sense of control over his fate.
The two novels, Shane and In the Lake of the Woods, show that it is not what is contained in our past that forces us into evil or good actions – it is how we use the events that have shaped us within the context of our everyday decisions that color the course of the rest of our lives. If a person runs from the things they have done, they have become slaves to their past, chained to a destiny not their own.
Shane comes to the Starrett’s homestead under circumstances never fully explained. It is clear from his expert handling of his gun, which he keeps hidden and dislikes to use, his peculiar habit of keeping his back to a wall, the need to have a clear view of all entrances, and the chill that vibes through the air when he is displeased or enraged, that he has, at the least, a checkered past. He is certainly a killer. Yet he shows no signs of violence towards the Starretts. In fact, he is, for a while, content in the life of a farm hand. However when Joe Starrett first offers him a position on his farm, “[Shane] moved his head to look out the window over the valley to the mountains marching along the horizon. ‘It’s always the same,’ he murmured. He was sort of talking to himself. ‘The old ways die-hard’” (Schaefer 27).
It is clear from this utterance that Shane knows that his life with the Starretts cannot last for long. And he is proven all too right. When it seems that Shane will be forced to resume killing, he is at first paralyzed with uncertainty of how to proceed. “His hands were clenched tightly and his arms were quivering. His face was pale with the effort shaking him. He was desperate with an inner torment, his eyes tortured by thoughts that he could not escape, and the marks were obvious on him and he did not care” (Schaefer 72). He is the only one with the skills to defeat the dangerous gun slinger Wilson. However he would lose the life he has tried to build for himself to forget the sins of his past. Finally though, he sees that in using his past to save the land and people he has come to love, he can regain control that he had lost by denying what he had become. “There was some subtle, new, unchangeable certainty in him. He came close and I saw that his face was quiet and untroubled and that little lights danced in his eyes” (Schaefer 73).
Shane emerges from the battle a winner, and rides off into the horizon of a future that he now owns completely. Even though Shane lectures Bob Starrett, a young boy, on how “‘There’s no going back from a killing, Bob. Right or wrong, the brand sticks and there’s no going back’”, he shows the audience that what he has done, he has done with the hope that he can shape Bob’s life for the better. “‘A man is what he is, Bob,’” he says “‘and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost. It’s up to you now. Go home to your mother and father. Grow strong and straight and take care of them. Both of them’” (Schaefer 87). In doing the right thing in a high pressure situation and accepting his past, Shane regains the self-confidence in his own destiny that he had been missing.
Schaefer, Jack. Shane. New York: Random House, 1998.
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