Book Report: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Riders of the Purple SageRiders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up after a long read of a Gilded Age history when I was looking for something light. I read this based on the recommendation from a long-time friend. I started in skeptically – westerns are not usually my thing (Larry McMurtry excepted).

Jane Withersteen is a wealthy, Mormon, single woman living on a ranch in Utah. The elders and the bishop want her to marry a Mormon and stop having anything to do with the gentiles of the area. They continually ramp up the pressure until violence is the only way out. She is befriended by the Mormon-hating gunman Lassiter when he saves her friend Venters from a whipping and worse.

We get classic romantic Western tropes like “Ventners laughed in cool disdain” [loc 109] and fainting damsels: “She leaned against him, and her body was limp and vibrated to a long, wavering tremble” [loc 2076] At first I was put off by this but then realized this was written in 1912 so I accepted (and grew to enjoy) the romantic characterizations.

I had more difficulty with the dialog. I recall Danny Deck, the author protagonist in Larry McMurtry’s “All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers” reflect that he had difficulty with nature descriptions but feels strong when he gets his characters talking. I think Zane Grey is the opposite. We get awkward and passive passages such as “I watched him with eyes which saw him my friend” [loc 393] and “When his eyes unclosed, day had come again” [loc 725]. Why not just: “When his eyes opened”? And I’m not even sure what this sentence means: “She believed fate had thrown in her way the lover or husband of Milly Erne.” [loc 1137].

But get Zane Grey out in the countryside and we see his real strength – beautiful descriptions of nature. “Half a mile down the slope they entered a luxuriant growth of willows, and soon came into an open space carpeted with grass like deep green velvet. The rushing of water and singing of birds filled their ears. Venters led his comrade to a shady bower and showed him Amber Spring. It was a magnificent outburst of clear, amber water pouring from a dark, stone-lined hole.” [loc 539].

As the novel progressed the writing becomes less awkward; perhaps Grey just needed to warm up a bit.

I also took issue with some of the narrative. Venters found a beautiful valley after climbing up steps hacked into stone by the cave dweller Native Americans (Sinagua?) who had been there ages ago. He had to take his boots and guns off to get over this part of the trail, but he later was able to hoist a calf on his shoulder and make the same climb.

[Warning: spoiler alert]
Given that this is a romantic novel – as in pastoral depiction of nature – I was unhappy with the ending. While the four main characters come out fine, Jane Withersteen had to sacrifice her ranch. I was impressed by the straightforward way Grey approached the Mormon issues and opinions of the day (1910’s). He was also a forward thinker having such a strong woman character.
[End Spoiler alert]

All-in-all, if you approach this novel on its terms rather than modern terms of a century later, you may find you enjoy it.

This book is in the public domain and there are a few options for reading it. I paid $0.99 for one e-book edition which was unreadable due to its formatting. The one I finally read (another $0.99) was better but the chapters didn’t seem to be numbered correctly. After a quick review, I think the free (e-book) version… would be the better bet. None have page numbers.

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