A classic western – Yee-Haw!

Riders Purple Sage Zane Grey

Riders of the Purple Sage (Oxford World’s Classics) by Zane Grey

A while ago I received a copy of the Oxford World’s Classics catalogue inviting me to ask for any books I’d like to review on my blog.  Where to start!  I could have chosen hundreds, but one in particular leapt out at me from a genre I’d never read before.

The evocative title has a lot to do with it (and there’s a band called New Riders of the Purple Sage).  I grew up with Westerns – The VirginianAlias Smith & Jones and The High Chapparal on TV,  John Wayne and Clint Eastwood on film.  Having worked in a library for my Saturday job in the late 1970s, I had heard of  Zane Grey, Louis Lamour, JT Edson and others – they were quite popular then, so the author’s distinctive name did ring a bell. Indeed, I’ve enjoyed modern novels in a similar vein too – Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was superb.  Could this book, one of the originals in the genre, hold its own against all the above?

Pearl Zane Grey (his real name) was born in Ohio in 1872.  He won a baseball scholarship to Penn where he studied dentistry – but he always wanted to become a writer.  He was a bit of a lad too, and would often disappear off hunting, fishing or visiting old girlfriends!  However, with his wife’s help, he developed his writing career.  Inspired by another classic western novel The Virginian by Owen Wister,  Riders as I’ll call it for short, was Grey’s greatest novel;  published in 1912 it was fairly early in his long career which made him a millionaire.

The first few paragraphs set the scene beautifully…

A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.

Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy and troubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message that held her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen who were coming to resent and attack her right to befriend a Gentile.

She wondered if the unrest and strife that had lately come to Cottonwoods was to involve her. And then she sighed, remembering that her father had founded this remotest border settlement of southern Utah and that he had left it to her. She owned all the ground and many of the cottages. Withersteen House was hers, and the great ranch, with its thousands of cattle, and swiftest horses of the sage. To her belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdure and beauty to the village and made living possible on that wild purple upland waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befell Cottonwoods.

That was enough to totally transport me into this frontier world – after a mere few pages I was totally hooked.  You can see the landscape with its sagebrush, and coppery red canyons in the distance.  What was particularly surprising, is that the main character is a woman – a strong one at that; but also that even in the frontier villages of the wild west there is intolerance – here between the Mormons and the Gentiles.

Jane, being an heiress, is under immense pressure to wed the Mormon preacher, and he and his men don’t like the friendship she has with Bern Venters.  They drive Venters out of town so to speak, but Jane is saved from enforced marriage by the arrival of the gunman Lassiter who stays to help, and has a quest of his own.  The Mormons plan a war of attrition on Jane – their women spy on her, their men stop working for her,  and one of her herds of cattle is rustled.  Jane struggles with her religion, finding it hard to see evil, and always wanting to look after her folk, but it’s not until she adopts an orphan child of one of her tenants that her eyes are opened and she lets herself find true love.  Meanwhile Venters who is hiding in the canyons, discovers the rustlers base of operations, and shoots one of them known as the Masked Rider – the identity of whom is another story.

I won’t tell you any more of the plot to save spoiling it, but this novel has a bit of everything you could expect from a Western – cowboys, horses, rustlers, preachers, girls, ranches, cattle, gunfights, horse chases, kidnapping, and more, plus that beautiful landscape.  If my initial surprise was over the shock of religion playing such a crucial part, a more pleasant one was due to the degree of romance in what was traditionally a ‘man’s novel’ – well every cowboy needs his girl, (at least until Brokeback Mountain – another truly fine Western movie). The characterisation was strong throughout and particularly interesting was that we got to see the inner life of Jane, Lassiter and Venter – their thoughts, their hopes, fears and desires. It’s not action all the way through, there’s also an appreciation of a civilised life lived on the edge.

I think you can tell I was rather besotted by this book – loved it! (10/10).

Source: Review copy – Thank you!

Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008) paperback.

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