Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Virginian

The Virginian. Owen Wister. 1902. Penguin Classics. 370 pages.

Some notable sight was drawing the passengers, both men and women, to the window; and therefore I rose and crossed the car to see what it was. I saw near the track an enclosure, and round it some laughing men, and inside it some whirling dust, and amid the dust some horses, plunging, huddling, and dodging. They were cow ponies in a corral, and one of them would not be caught, no matter who threw the rope.

I do not read many westerns. (If I remember correctly, this is only my second or third western. Depending on if you count These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner. My first western was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.) In fact, I have always believed myself to be completely allergic to the genre. Me? Like a western?! Really?! Well, I did more than like this one. I loved it. I maybe even loved, loved, loved it. While I'm not sure that I can echo what Dolce Bellezza said in her review: "It will definitely be in my top ten list for the year, and quite possibly for my life." I definitely agree that it is worth reading. I was very happy to be so surprised!

The Virginian is a collection of interconnected stories. Some are more "connected" than others. Some of the stories are told through a first person account, a first person narrator, whom we come to know simply as Tenderfoot or The Tenderfoot. He's an Eastern man that has come west to Wyoming territory. And The Virginian, our real hero, is his protector as this newbie is learning his way.
When Judge Henry ascertained that nothing could prevent me from losing myself, that it was not uncommon for me to saunter out after breakfast with a gun and in thirty minutes cease to know north from south, he arranged for my protection. He detailed an escort for me; and the escort was once more the trustworthy man! The poor Virginian was taken from his work and his comrades and set to playing nurse for me. And for a while this humiliation ate into his untamed soul. It was his lugubrious lost to accompany me in my rambles, preside over my blunders, and save me from calamitously passing into the next world. He bore it in courteous silence, except when speaking was necessary. He would show me the lower ford, which I could never find for myself, generally mistaking a quicksand for it. He would tie my horse properly. He would recommend me not to shoot my rifle at a white-tailed deer in the particular moment that the outfit wagon was passing behind the animal on the further side of the brush. There was seldom a day that he was not obliged to hasten and save me from sudden death or from ridicule, which is worse. Yet never once did he lose his patience; and his gentle, slow voice, and apparently lazy manner remained the same, whether we were sitting at lunch together, or up in the mountains during a hunt, or whether he was bringing me back my horse, which had run away again because I had again forgotten to throw the reins over his head and let them trail. (45)
But other stories are told in third person. Through a series of adventures, we get to know The Virginian; we get to know the people close to The Virginian. The men he works with and respects. The men he works with and doesn't respect. His friends. His enemies. My favorite of these may just be the woman, the "school teacher spinster" whom he falls in love with, Miss Molly Wood. 

 I found myself enjoying not just the characters, not just the stories, but the writing style itself. After the clumsiness of Zane Grey (at least in Riders of the Purple Sage) I was happy to see a western written by someone who could really write. There was just something about this one that worked for me. It was dramatic. It was suspenseful. It was humorous. It was emotional. It was romantic--in places. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones between The Virginian and Miss Molly Wood. I loved their courtship. How steady he was, how stubborn she was. How he took the time to read *most* of the books she loaned him. How he was fond of a good book--Shakespeare especially. But how he really didn't get why she loved Jane Austen so much! I liked their conversations on the books he read. I liked his conversations with her in general.

But The Virginian isn't just a romance. I mean there is a happily ever after at the end. But in between all the courting scenes--and there are really only a handful--The Virginian is busy working and riding and managing the Judge's ranch--he's foreman--and generally seeing that justice is done. (Because there are cattle thieves about!) So there is plenty of action and adventure and humor. There's plenty of good fun in this one. But it's not without its darker moments, its life-and-death moments.

Favorite quotes:

The Virginian was grave in bearing and of infrequent speech; but he kept a song going--a matter of some seventy-nine verses. Seventy-eight were quite unprintable, and rejoiced his brother cow-punchers monstrously. (62)

No one of her admirers had ever been like this creature. The fringed leathern chaperreros, the cartridge belt, the flannel shirt, the knotted scarf at the neck, these things were now an old story to her. Since her arrival she had seen young men and old in plenty dressed thus. But worn by the man now standing by her door, they seemed to radiate romance. (83)

Molly Wood was regarding him saucily. "I don't think I like you," said she.
"That's all square enough. You're goin' to love me before we get through. I wish yu'd come a-ridin', ma'am."
"Dear, dear, dear! So I'm going to love you? How will you do it? I know men think that they only need to sit and look strong and make chests at a girl--"
"Goodness gracious! I ain't makin' any chests at yu'!" Laughter overcame him for a moment, and Miss Wood liked his laugh very much. "Please come a-ridin," he urged. "It's the prettiest kind of a day."
She looked at him frankly, and there was a pause. "I will take back two things that I said to you," she then answered him. "I believe that I do like you. And I know that if I went riding with you, I should not have an immature protector." (85)

"And now I'll not see you for quite a while. I am going a long way. But I'll be very busy. And bein' busy always keeps me from grievin' too much about you."
Strange is woman! She would rather have heard some other last remark than this.
"Oh, very well!" she said. "I'll not miss you either."
He smiled at her. "I doubt if yu' can help missin' me," he remarked. And he was gone at once, galloping on his Monte horse. Which of the two won a victory this day? (94)

If words were meant to conceal our thoughts, melody is perhaps still thicker veil for them. (142)

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous,  10:20 AM  

I was a teenager the last time I read this, but I remember liking it very much.

Candace Rose 5:26 PM  

Just stumbled upon your blog, and I'm excited to see what you've got for me!
I'll admit, I have never, ever, EVER read a western...but I might have to give this one a try. Honestly, as long as it has at least a little romance, I can read pretty much anything!

Beckie B. 5:37 PM  

I think I will get this for my husband -- big western movie fan. I got him Shane and he didn't really like it. It came highly recommended.

Bellezza 6:22 AM  

Becky, your review is so complete! So indicative of the reasons why I loved this book! You told about it, without give too much away. I especially liked this paragraph of yours: "There was just something about this one that worked for me. It was dramatic. It was suspenseful. It was humorous. It was emotional. It was romantic--in places. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones between The Virginian and Miss Molly Wood. I loved their courtship. How steady he was, how stubborn she was. How he took the time to read *most* of the books she loaned him. How he was fond of a good book--Shakespeare especially. But how he really didn't get why she loved Jane Austen so much! I liked their conversations on the books he read. I liked his conversations." To me, that sums up all the parts I like best as I can't really explain how wonderful his integrity was to me. Anyway, so glad that you read it, and enjoyed it. I'm really pleased you gave it a try and came away happy. xoxo

hopeinbrazil 8:56 AM  

Like you, I thought I was allergic to Westerns, but this book was fun. The fact that its been made into so many movie versions tells you that it's a good story.

Anonymous,  3:29 PM  

I intend to read this book very soon, now, but I am shocked that you have only read a few westerns! Have you read any by L'Amour? Comstock Lode is especially good.

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