Grey, Zane. 1912. Riders of the Purple Sage.
For those of you who don't know, I'm allergic to westerns. I first noticed this allergy to the bang, bang, shoot'em up formula as a young child. So what would possess me to read Zane Grey? Well, it's the book my mom chose for round two of Me? Read That?! (You can find out all about our
So what is Riders of the Purple Sage about? Short answer: shooting Mormons. The long answer is slightly more complicated. It has two heroines and two heroes. The setting is Utah in the 1870s.
The content. This was published in 1912. I try to remember that when reading it. But it's not the easiest thing to do. But I wasn't comfortable reading this one. The casual shooting of others--in this case Mormons--didn't sit easy with me. And there were several things the "heroes" did that I just didn't agree with at all.
So who are the characters? Well, there's Jane Withersteen. She's one we meet on page one. She's a wealthy land owner. Single. A Mormon. She's at the center of the trouble in the novel because she has the unpleasant (to the villains that is) habit of befriending gentiles (non-mormons). She's also a bit too independent for their tastes. Why doesn't she get married? Why doesn't she start a family? What kind of believer is she if she doesn't want to raise the next generation of Mormons? The Mormon men--led by someone named Tull, I believe--will stop at nothing to run friends out of Utah. One of her friends is a man named Venters. This 'action' scene serves as an introduction into the story really. A showdown between Elder Tull and Venters. But it's one that is interrupted by the arrival of a strange man, Lassiter. He's a gunman, one known for his hatred of Mormons. One who has been known to shoot a few. He's on a mission, that's for sure, he's looking for vengeance. (His sister was "kidnapped" by Mormons. It's been almost twenty years since, and while she's long dead...he's still bitter.) He stops the men from beating Venters. There are a few other characters, of course, another woman, one named Bess. But I won't tell you exactly how she enters into this drama.
The writing. It started out very painful. Zane Grey, in my humble opinion, needed an editor badly. The descriptions. Oh, they hurt! Chapter five is the most painful chapter of the book. The descriptions were boring and repetitive. And I had to laugh when Venters "soliloquized" to the sage. (Okay, technically, he was probably talking to himself or possibly the unconscious person he'd just shot. But still.) His phrasing at times struck me as awkward and ill-formed.
Broad daylight and a hint of sunshine high on the cliff-rim to the west brought him to consideration of what he had better do. (49)
"A good tracker could trail me," he muttered. "And I'd be cornered here. Let's see. Rustlers are a lazy set when they're not on the ride. I'll risk it. Then I'll change my hiding-place." (49)
Venters was conscious of an indefinite conflict of change within him. It seemed to be a vague passing of old moods, a dim coalescing of new forces, a moment of inexplicable transition. He was both cast down and uplifted. He wanted to think and think and think of the meaning, but he resolutely dispelled emotion. His imperative need at present was to find a safe retreat, and this called for action. (80)
This sad-eyed girl was so utterly different from what it would have been reason to believe such a remarkable life would have made her. (110)
So the story. Aside from talking about shooting Mormons, what happens in this book? (And there is more talk than action.) Well, there are horses and horse races. And cattle. And cattle rustlers. And romance. Two couples falling in love, and the obstacles they face along the way.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but for the last hundred pages, I was hooked. Not hooked in a wow-this-is-a-great-book way, but still I didn't want to put the book down until I found out how it all worked out. The pacing and tension in these last pages worked really, really well. Not well enough to make up for the painfulness of the earlier chapters--particularly that awful fifth chapter--but enough for me to think that maybe just maybe Grey was good at what he set out to do.
So am I still allergic to westerns? Yes. Give me a scenario where there are no guns and no horses, and I'll maybe reconsider.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews