Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey

Riders_of_the_Purple_Sage_-_Zane_Grey_cover

Jane Withersteen has inherited the largest landholding around, but the Mormon church wants to take control of her water supply. Happily, a lone gunman with a troubled past appears to help her out.

I read a lot of westerns when I was young – mostly Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. I recall preferring Grey; maybe L’Amour’s sagas were too complex for me. Still, I never got around to Riders of the Purple Sage, so when I saw this for free, I thought I’d go back to those childhood days for a visit.

Reading this book reminded me that I’ve changed, and that westerns deal with a lot of things I don’t care for – horse riding and cattle ranching among them – and that Grey and L’Amour wrote in a different time, about an even earlier time. Men are strong and silent, women are dependent.

This book holds pretty much true to the western stereotype. Hard, mysterious gunslinger, lonely rich woman, cattle rustlers. Here, the main villains are Mormons, and even in the context of the day (the somewhat recent end of polygamy), it’s jarring. The plot is complex, and frankly doesn’t hold up that well – some parts are fairly obvious, some convoluted, some just not credible. Characterization is thin. Overall, the book reads more as a romance with horses than a western with romance.

The scenic description is on the purple (forgive me) side, but it’s still attractive. Grey does a nice job of putting us in the scene, and of describing beautiful terrain. If the exact geography is vague, we still know what the place looks like. And yes, a lot of it is covered with sage.

As a trip to memoryland, this was something of a disappointment. I’m frankly unsure why this book was seen as a watershed for westerns. I could swear that the other Grey books I read were better, but I’m not too inclined to check. I think I’m better off keeping a warm hazy memory of summers with Zane Grey than actually digging back into them any further.

For newcomers to the genre – I’m not sure this is the place to start with westerns. It’s an easy read, and scenic, but full enough of present day -isms that you may want to look elsewhere for a first exposure.

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