“The Shepherd’s Tale”, written by Zack Whedon from an outline by Joss Whedon, was a much delayed and much anticipated addition to the Firefly/Serenity canon, helping to fill in the gaps left so obviously gaping by the shortness of the series and Book’s death in the film. It’s an interesting story, with a unique inverted narrative, starting at the end and then moving backwards bit by bit, showing the crucial moments in “Book’s” life at every turn, from his death defending Haven from the Operative’s attack all the way back to his decision as a child to run away from his broken down home and abusive father.
The various episodes tell us a lot about Book and inform us more of the kind of man that he is in the TV series. The knowledge of the criminal underworld and how it operates comes from his younger life. The knowledge of weaponry and fighting comes from his time in the Independence movement. The hidden brutality and ruthlessness comes from his clandestine service with the Alliance as a double agent. His “religiousity” comes from a unique moment of personal revelation that occurred at his lowest point.
Let’s look at it all a bit closer. Henry Evans, as a teenager, is trapped in a rundown home on a rundown planet with a monstrous father. This is a street-smart and ambitious kid, clearly, too good for the ramshackle surroundings, and his decision to leave, to strike out on his own, reflects that. This person has no problem with making a fateful, and maybe painful, separations, just as he does later in leaving Serenity.
Later, as a slightly older yet still young man, Evans is heavily involved with various criminal enterprises, essentially a hoodlum, albeit one with a remarkable will, staring down police with impunity and escaping the authorities with ease. But the restlessness, and the unhappiness is clear: someone with this much potential needs something to utilise it for, something beyond stick-ups and other petty crimes.
The opportunity to get off-world, and join the growing Independence movement, provides that cause, but even then Evans seems nonchalant and uncommitted, political affiliations clearly not to his liking as much as it might initially have appeared to be. As this loner figure who only occasionally bothers to turn up to meetings of his Browncoat cell, Evans appears to be someone who has transferred his dislike of authority to the military command structure he now finds himself part of: his volunteering for a long-term subterfuge might seem odd in this context, but I took it to be a sign of a certain recklessness in Evans’ nature, a desire to do something, anything, to make his life have meaning, even if it runs contrary to his own sense of self-preservation.
As an Alliance officer, first in the police force he once hated, and later in the military, “Book” excels. His drive and determination make him a committed double agent, and allows him to wear a facade that an entity like the Alliance just can’t resist. Indeed, it become easy to imagine Book falling hard into such a role, to the point where the lines between what is pretending to be and what he really is become blurred. His beating of the Browncoat prisoner is a just a little bit too brutal to be a well-played stage-show for the benefit of his superiors.
But the subterfuge still comes to its inevitable conclusion, with Book orchestrating what must be one of the most spectacular Browncoat successes of the war, though he does seem to harbour serious regrets by the conclusion. Poor Book loses everything in the process: the Alliance casts him out, the Independents either abandon him or are defeated soon after, and Book himself winds up homeless, a vagrant sucking down alcohol as often as he can get, a gutter rat not all that far off from where he started.
The moment of revelation that follows initially seems less a religious experience than some kind of strange metaphysical philosophising, that bears many similarities to the themes expounded upon in the episode “Objects In Space”, which I assume was a deliberate choice. Book doesn;t just turn to the Bible and God at a low moment, finding strength in prayer: he places God in his head as constant force arranging the galaxy as he/she sees fit, producing something stable and coherent out of forces of disorder. Book, a man whose entire life to that point has been one of endless change, violence and wandering, is clearly going to see something attractive in this idea, and turning to the Church is a turning from darkness to light.
So, while Book appears to be every inch the Shepherd, we can infer that he isn’t quite as traditional a seminarian as others would be, even with the later depictions of a monastic life and prayer. The history of violence, military service and loss remains with him, and his revelation about God doesn’t exactly suit the message he propagates later. But still, for someone who has spent his life seeking something to base that life around, the faith is a better choice than many others.
The man who spent that time on Serenity – witnessing sin, and aiding in it at times – is a bundle of contradictions, someone who has spent years studying the faith and is now struggling to put it into practise. Becoming a Shepherd must have been a withdrawn process, cutting Book off from the universe for a time, and coming back into it has its painful moments. In this story, Book witnesses yet more criminal behaviour from Mal – now engaged in arms dealing, briefly – and must yet again question what he us doing on Serenity.
Lastly, we have the man who lays down his life for the people of Haven as they come under attack, fearlessly attempting to get them to safety while he himself runs towards the danger. His last act is to “kill the ship that killed us” and he does so without regrets. It is a strange confluence of the events that have made Book who he is: his faith leading him to protect the weak, his military background helping identify weakpoints in the attack ship, his general recklessness leading him headlong into the fight, and ultimately that detached sense of being just one tiny cog in God’s overall vision helping him to dace into death without terror.
Book was under-utilised in Firefly, and had only a small role to play in Serenity. He had no episode of his own. “The Shepherd’s Tale” is that episode, more or less, and it’s tantalising to imagine how Whedon would have turned it into a visual medium: something akin to “Out Of Gas” with its array of flashbacks, I would imagine. We’ll never know. As it is, this book serves as a great way to give us the background on Book, fully fleshing out one of the series’ most interesting characters.