My rating: 3.5/10
Oh, Lassiter, you big black-clad gun-slinging hero of this desperately romantic book, if I ever find it within me to start to read this one again, please rise up off the printed page, leap off your amazing blind horse, unholster your big black pistol, and shoot me right away. Don’t just nick a lung, like your buddy Venters did to the virginally beautiful Bess as she trotted past his desperate hideout garbed in her Masked Rider’s disguise, but kill me outright, same as you did Mormon Bishop Dyer, despoiler of your late sister and destroyer of her happy marriage. Except maybe don’t shoot me in the arms first, as you did him, before blasting five more holes in his chest. Just aim for my heart, and make it quick.
Gar. What a book. Wow.
What was I thinking?
Oh, yeah, that whole “classic of American literature and mold-maker of the classic Western genre” thing.
I’m not even going to touch the Important Book for Various Reasons argument, but am going to go instead to Pleasure of Reading for a Modern Reader. (Meaning me.) Did I enjoy this book? Mostly, no. The novelty of the plushly purple prose paled quickly, and despite the campy sense of irony I felt as I doggedly waded through the story it wasn’t enough to make it an acceptably good experience.
It’s 1871 in Utah, and the Mormons are well-established, top-dogging it marvellously well with their polygamous colonies headed by manly men wedded to legions of willing wives. So when rich Mormon rancher’s daughter Jane Withersteen spurns the advances of the man chosen for her by the local Mormon bishop and insists on carrying on with her charity to the impoverished Gentile (blanket term for anyone non-Mormon) families of the area and her hiring of Gentile riders to care for her seven thousand head of range cattle, events start to escalate.
Just as Jane’s chief Gentile Rider, Venters, is about to be hauled off by a posse of Mormons, fate in the guise of black-clad, gun-slinging, Mormon-hating Lassiter arrives in the nick of time. The Mormons withdraw muttering, to go off and devise clever plans of revenge and sabotage against uppish Jane, while she enjoys (for a while) the loving devotion of two passionate men. (Venters and Lassiter.)
“Then I’ll have you whipped within an inch of your life,” replied Tull, harshly. “I’ll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come back you’ll get worse.”
Venters’s agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed to gray.
Jane impulsively stepped forward. “Oh! Elder Tull!” she cried. “You won’t do that!”
Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.
“That’ll do from you. Understand, you’ll not be allowed to hold this boy to a friendship that’s offensive to your Bishop. Jane Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven’t yet come to see the place of Mormon women. We’ve reasoned with you, borne with you. We’ve patiently waited. We’ve let you have your fling, which is more than I ever saw granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven’t come to your senses. Now, once for all, you can’t have any further friendship with Venters. He’s going to be whipped, and he’s got to leave Utah!”
“Oh! Don’t whip him! It would be dastardly!” implored Jane, with slow certainty of her failing courage.
Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed.
Lots of stuff then happens, most of it involving the Mormons and Jane’s Gentile champions plus an independent gang of rustlers shooting at each other (frequently fatally), stealing cattle and prize racehorses, befriending a cute little orphan four-year-old (“Duz oo wuv me, Muvver Jane?”), finding a secret hidden valley and thousand-year-old abandoned cliff dwellings (an enjoyable interlude which added on a point or two to my brutally low rating), panning for gold (“washing” gold, nice topical reference), ambushing, wounding and restoring to life a lovely young girl disguised as a boy cattle rustler, charging about on various noble steeds including Lassiter’s original blind steed (who perishes tragically), two black Arabians (Jane and Lassiter) and a rugged yet awesomely sturdy and fast range horse (Wrangle, ridden by Venters) who in turn is stolen by a bad guy and ends up being shot by his loving owner in order to ensure the demise of the bad guy rider.
And much else.
This is a very multi-stranded story with lots going on, and you have to hand it to Zane Grey, he deserves credit for being ambitious with his intentions.
Here’s another snippet of the text:
He lifted her—what a light burden now!—and stood her upright beside him, and supported her as she essayed to walk with halting steps. She was like a stripling of a boy; the bright, small head scarcely reached his shoulder. But now, as she clung to his arm, the rider’s costume she wore did not contradict, as it had done at first, his feeling of her femininity. She might be the famous Masked Rider of the uplands, she might resemble a boy; but her outline, her little hands and feet, her hair, her big eyes and tremulous lips, and especially a something that Venters felt as a subtle essence rather than what he saw, proclaimed her sex.
Western garb and setting aside, Riders of the Purple Sage is purely an über-traditional romance, and the two female love interests – Jane Withersteen and ex-Masked Rider Bess – are both , despite their brief moments of sturdy independence – Jane in standing up to her Church, and Bess in her mastery of horsemanship – at heart simpering girly-girls all a-dither with love for their manly men, whom they then order hither and yon with feminine whimsy. The menfolk, being blinded by Love, trot willingly to and fro, breaking out occasionally (“Sorry, lost my temper and killed your dad”) and being instantly forgiven (“That’s okay, he wasn’t my real dad, even if he raised me from a tiny baby and gave me total love and devotion and protected me from the wicked men who sought to ruin me and gave me a proper education and everything”) and generally being tweaked about on silken leading strings.
And despite spending weeks alone with each other – Lassiter and Jane holed up in the ranch house, Venters and Bess in the hidden valley – the most physical they get with each other is the occasional embrace (with the men nobly holding themselves back from the passions engendered by contact with the heaving breasts of the beloved) and a few rather chaste kisses. These guys (and gals) were made of steel! This is romantic fiction at its best, all heaving bosoms and blushes and occasional fainting and manly-passion-held-in-check just a-waiting for a woman’s word and the arrival of a preacher man to hold a marriage ceremony before going any further.
Oh, yes. And then there’s all the “western” dialect:
The rider thundered up and almost threw his foam-flecked horse in the sudden stop. He was a giant form, and with fearless eyes.
“Judkins, you’re all bloody!” cried Jane, in affright. “Oh, you’ve been shot!”
“Nothin’ much Miss Withersteen. I got a nick in the shoulder. I’m some wet an’ the hoss’s been throwin’ lather, so all this ain’t blood.”
“What’s up?” queried Venters, sharply.
“Rustlers sloped off with the red herd.”
“Where are my riders?” demanded Jane.
“Miss Withersteen, I was alone all night with the herd. At daylight this mornin’ the rustlers rode down. They began to shoot at me on sight. They chased me hard an’ far, burnin’ powder all the time, but I got away.”
And the reams of descriptive prose. You can certainly tell that Zane Grey got his start writing pulp fiction which was paid for by the word, because he does pack them in.
Venters … went to the edge of the terrace, and there halted to survey the valley.
He was prepared to find it larger than his unstudied glances had made it appear; for more than a casual idea of dimensions and a hasty conception of oval shape and singular beauty he had not had time. Again the felicity of the name he had given the valley struck him forcibly. Around the red perpendicular walls, except under the great arc of stone, ran a terrace fringed at the cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first terrace sloped another wider one densely overgrown with aspens, and the center of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in half. Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among the trees. To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous cavern opened in the wall; and low down, just above the tree-tops, he made out a long shelf of cliff-dwellings, with little black, staring windows or doors. Like eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen—all ruins—had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the valley. Venters felt sure that he was the only white man who had ever walked under the shadow of the wonderful stone bridge, down into that wonderful valley with its circle of caves and its terraced rings of silver spruce and aspens.
The dog growled below and rushed into the forest. Venters ran down the declivity to enter a zone of light shade streaked with sunshine. The oak-trees were slender, none more than half a foot thick, and they grew close together, intermingling their branches. Ring came running back with a rabbit in his mouth. Venters took the rabbit and, holding the dog near him, stole softly on. There were fluttering of wings among the branches and quick bird-notes, and rustling of dead leaves and rapid patterings. Venters crossed well-worn trails marked with fresh tracks; and when he had stolen on a little farther he saw many birds and running quail, and more rabbits than he could count. He had not penetrated the forest of oaks for a hundred yards, had not approached anywhere near the line of willows and cottonwoods which he knew grew along a stream. But he had seen enough to know that Surprise Valley was the home of many wild creatures.
This is a dreadfully silly “review”, but as the internet abounds with discussion of this book, I’m going to quit right here.
I read the thing from cover to cover, I muttered to myself and to my family, I rolled my eyes, I mused over the novel’s place in the American historical literary canon, and I am now ready to gently shelve it way high up and move along. It had its pleasurable moments, duly noted, but it’s ultimately not the book for me.