Riders of the Purple Sage: Filibooks Classics (Illustrated)
Could this novel by Zane Grey be the most eminent western ever written? Could be. I haven’t read the two main challengers; Owen Wister’s, The Virginian (1902), or Jack Schaefer’s, Shane (1946), although I did see and love the movie. Did Cormac McCarthy learn how to limit the main characters to four or five after reading this novel? Could be. Did Zane Grey learn descriptive writing by reading the old masters like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville? Could be. But Zane Grey’s descriptive strength is in delineating the backdrop surroundings. You want an example? How about on page 45, “All about him was ridgy roll of wind-smoothed, rain-washed rock. Not a tuft of grass or a bunch of sage colored the dull rust-yellow. He saw where, to the right, this uneven flow of stone ended in a blunt wall. Leftward, from the hollow that lay at his feet, mounted a gradual slow-swelling slope to a great height topped by leaning, cracked, and ruined crags.” Does Zane Grey love to use dashes in between words to emphatically enhance his descriptions? Could be. I have always been in awe of the old descriptive writers (it seems to be a lost art), but Zane Grey is the first author that I have read who actually details and emblazons the scenery for the enjoyment of the reader. Well done. Grey has only four main characters, three antagonist and of course hundreds of cattlemen known as Riders of the Purple Sage.
The story is set in 1871 Utah in a village named Cottonwoods. Jane Withersteen has inherited her father’s huge ranch. Her father was a devout Mormon who wanted Jane to marry fellow rancher and Mormon Elder, Tull. Jane, also a God-fearing Mormon, doesn’t love Tull and will not marry him. Except for Jane, the Mormons have no tolerance for Gentiles (any person who isn’t Mormon). As the novel opens, Elder Tull and his men are preparing to whip Jane’s ranch foreman, Bern Venters, because he is a gentile and Tull wants him off Jane’s ranch. Before that can happen, a rider with two black guns shows up. He turns out to be the infamous (to the Mormons) gunslinger, Lassiter. What’s he doing here? Tull and his gang are scared off. The reader finds that Venters was also a very capable gunman, who fell in love with Jane and gave up his guns out of respect for Jane. Lassiter came to Cottonwoods to visit the grave of Milly Erne (who was a friend of Jane). How does Lassiter know Milly? He will not tell. One thing for sure is that Lassiter hates Mormon men, not the women. On page thirty he says to : “Venters, take this from me, these Mormons ain’t just right in their minds. Else could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a wife, an’ call it duty?” Jane takes Lassiter to see Milly’s grave. He still will not tell Jane how he knows Milly. Jane finds out that the rustler Oldring, along with his mysterious masked rider and his gang have rustled Jane’s red herd (2,500 steer). Venters ask Jane for his guns back with the intention of tracking the stolen herd to Oldring’s secret hideout.
Venters finds the hiding place, but he is attacked by the masked rider and another. He kills both. No, wait the masked rider is still alive. The mask comes off and it is a girl. Who is she? He can’t believe that he shot a woman. Venters finds Surprise Valley, a huge balancing rock and many caves in the cliffs. There he mends the masked girl who’s name is Bess. As she recovers, she tells Venters that she doesn’t want to go back to Oldring. He still doesn’t know who she is. As she recovers, they live in the beautiful secure valley for months. They fall in love. Meanwhile Jane, who secretly helps gentile families, brings a dying Mrs. Larkins and her daughter, Fay, to her ranch. Are the Mormons working with the rustlers to ruin Jane and force her to give up the ranch and marry Tull? Is the gunslinger Lassiter falling in love with Jane? Jane knows that “passionately devoted as she was to her religion, she had refused to marry a Mormon.” This story is ready to explode. Jane's white herd (also 2,500 steer) is also rustled. Will Lassiter give up his guns like Venters did, or will he go into town to kill Mormons? What a story.
Okay, you have met the four main characters: Jane, Lassiter, Venters and Bess. What will happen to them? You have met two of the antagonist: Tull and Oldring, but not the third. The third is Mormon Bishop Dyer. This is not a nice man. What will happen to the bad guys? Do Venters and Bess stay in Surprise Valley or make a break-out for freedom. Can Lassiter give up his gunslinger ways to satisfy Jane’s pious thoughts. What started as a simple western novel became convoluted with a cliff-hanging (I’m using Zane’s dashes) ending. Well, I suggest that you grab a copy of this 1912 western classic to find how this quintessential novel ends.