A sharp clip-crop of the iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.
So begins Zane Grey’s best known Western, Riders of the Purple Sage. Originally published in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage has been called the most popular western novel of all time.
Let me confess that I can count on one finger the number of traditional Westerns that I have read – as the number is limited to this one. When I was putting together my list of 100 books of the 20th century, I wanted to include influential works from as many genres as I could come up with, which is how Riders of the Purple Sage ended up on my list. This is not a long book, nor is it a hard book to read.
A couple of things about this book surprised me. First, it is set in Utah, and involves conflict between the Mormon settlers – who essentially run the place – and the so-called Gentiles – or, non-Mormons. I went to college in Utah, and found the historical depiction to be fascinating. It also recalled Sherlock Holmes 1886 novel, A Study in Scarlet, which is set in the same area and involves many of the same tensions.
Because the conflict in this book is related to the mistreatment of Jane Withersteen, a Mormon woman who refuses to become a plural wife of one of the town elders, Tull, and, as a result, she is essentially persecuted. There are two side-by-side stories: that of Jane and Lassiter versus that of Bess and Venters, but the book is propelled forward by this situation where the wealthy and independent Jane refuses to submit; as all good Mormon women are required to do:
Jane smothered the glow and burn within her, ashamed of a passion for freedom that opposed her duty.
While Jane and Lassiter are contending with the attacks on Jane, Bess and Venters find themselves hiding out in a secret canyon in a story that seems to echo the Garden of Eden story from the Bible. This wasn’t the only rather heavy-handed Biblical reference in the book (and I am no Biblical scholar). There is a scene toward the end of the book that strongly alludes to the story of Lot and his flight from Sodom/Gomorrah.
After reading this book, I am reminded that my grandfather had an entire shelf of Louis L’Amour westerns on a shelf. If this book is any indication, the trad Western is the male equivalent of the trad Regency. This book was a romance as much as it was an adventure. It was a romance where strong men give their hearts, and sometimes even their lives, to vulnerable women. It was a romance told from the perspective of the man, but it was a romance none the less, relying upon adventure and horsemanship and violence to tell the romantic story.
The first half of the book felt like a slog, but the pace picks up dramatically at about the 50% mark, and the second half is a quick read. The dialogue is laughably bad, and if I hadn’t been committed to reading it, I might’ve given up in the first few pages. Mr. Grey occasionally gets a bit bogged down in his descriptive writing about the beauty of the landscape, horseback pursuits and gunplay, and the vagaries of the weather:
The gale swooped down with a hollow unearthly howl. It yelled and pealed and shrilled and shrieked. It was made up of a thousand piercing cries. It was a rising and a moving sound.
Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley – beautiful now as never before – mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the quivering golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams of fire.
But those descriptions are remarkably evocative and lovely.
I can’t say that it was my favorite kind of book – if I have to read a “Western” book, I’ll pick up a Wallace Stegner or a Willa Cather over a pulp Western any day of the week. But, overall, it was an interesting read.