Leroy is a man adrift in his own life, casting about for an identity and a sense of purpose. Although he has almost recovered from his accident, he is shaken up and frightened of driving the rig again. No longer the primary breadwinner, he begins to lose his identity as a provider. He is less interested in pursuing the carpentry and guarding jobs that Norma Jean suggests than he is in sewing needlepoint, building models, and dreaming of constructing a log cabin for himself and Norma Jean to live in. Leroy has also lost his identity as a father. His son, Randy, is dead, and although Leroy often thinks of him, his memories of Randy have faded, and Leroy does not consider himself a paternal figure. At loose ends, Leroy latches on to Norma Jean. He is something of a romantic and imagines that his wife will appreciate his constant presence around the house and that their marriage will flourish as a result. When it turns out that Norma Jean is annoyed and oppressed by his homecoming, Leroy begins to lose his identity as a husband.
Mason portrays Leroy as lovable, perceptive, and kind, but a loser nonetheless. Leroy adores Norma Jean and watches her anxiously, trying to guess what she is feeling and thinking. He treats his abrasive mother-in-law with respect, showing sympathy and kindness toward her even when she insults him. When tensions simmer or Norma Jean and Mabel squabble, Leroy diffuses the situation by staying calm and refusing to be provoked. He misses his son and makes friendly overtures to Stevie Hamilton, who is the same age Randy would have been and cruelly rejects Leroy’s attempts at conversation. If Leroy wins our hearts, however, he also earns Norma Jean’s criticism. Instead of pulling himself together and finding a new job, he lies on the couch smoking pot or drives aimlessly around town. He allows himself to be intimidated by his wife’s increased independence, rather than accepting it or even encouraging it. He anticipates Norma Jean’s departure, but he passively watches it happen rather than try to prevent it. Although he remains hopeful, wondering whether his wife is beckoning to him in the distance, it is clear to us that his lovable nature will not outweigh his negative qualities in Norma Jean’s eyes.
Norma Jean undergoes a transformation during the course of “Shiloh,” changing from a stunted housewife into a woman taking steps toward complete independence. Before the story opens, Norma Jean played a traditional feminine role, keeping the home fires burning and plying her husband with food and entertainment when he returned from his long trips. When the story begins, she is chafing under the yoke of her wifely duties. Leroy’s presence weighs on her. After so much time spent away, he seems like a stranger, someone who does not understand her. She has begun to improve her mind and her body, taking weightlifting classes and eating healthily. As the story progresses, she enrolls in night school and stays up late studying instead of going to bed early, as she used to do. She admits that she might not tell Leroy if she were having an affair. She clashes with her overbearing mother, who is baffled by the changes in her daughter.
Far from portraying this transformation as a smooth forward movement, Mason stresses Norma Jean’s confusion and self-doubt. When Mabel catches her smoking, Norma Jean weeps. She lets Mabel rattle her with the story of the baby-killing dachshund. She tackles night school but writes essays about casseroles, a symbol of her former existence as a simple housewife. In the climactic scene during which Norma Jean says she wants to leave Leroy, she confusedly traces the change back to the day her mother caught her smoking, says she doesn’t want to feel like a child anymore, and decides that she was unhappy even before the smoking incident. In the end, she says she doesn’t know what she means. The scene presents a microcosm of Norma Jean’s mentality: she is able to be braver and speak her mind more freely than she could as a young woman, but she is still insecure. She makes great gains during the course of the story, but the process of self-discovery is slow, painful, and unfinished.