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Riders of the Purple Sage (Classics Library (NTC))

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Zane Grey

Excellent introduction by Lee Clark Mitchell, that confirms Zane Grey was never anecdotal: this novel is much more than just a Western. Georges-Claude Guilbert, Universite Francois Rabelais Tours--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition … see full wiki

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Author: Zane Grey
Publisher: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company
1 review about Riders of the Purple Sage (Classics Library...

Not the Western I'd Expected

  • Dec 12, 1999
The lovely Jane Withersteen, Mormon lady rancher on the Utah borderlands is saved, in the nick of time, from the attentions of the grim Mormon elder Tull, and his minions, by the appearance, from out of the mysterious sage, of a gunman called Lassiter. This man is renowned in Mormon country as a Mormon hater and killer and Jane finds she is strangely drawn to this oddly heroic figure who saves her and her hired hand from the Mormons. These men have come to enforce their will on her by driving off her non-Mormon cowpokes and causing her to marry Elder Tull. But Jane is a convinced Mormon and cannot believe ill of Tull and his cronies so she makes it her business to persuade Lassiter to lay aside his guns and hatred of the Mormons so that he will do them no more harm. In the meantime her hired hand, Venters, freed by Lassiter's timely appearance, goes off into the sage, to save himself, and there encounters the mysterious rustlers who have been plaguing the local ranchers (and now Jane) and learns their deadly secret.

Who Lassiter really is and why he hates the Mormons gradually comes out as Jane works her wiles on him, but Tull and his boys, and especially the local bishop, Dyer, only see that Jane is in disobedience to the Church and their will by allowing Lassiter to stay on. Accordingly they continue to press her via the community, causing all her Mormon hands to leave her and all other awful things to occur.

RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE is a somewhat strange book and exceedingly harsh on the Mormons (who may or may not have been, as portrayed rather convincingly here, a closed and scheming "cult" in their earliest days) and it is written in somewhat purplish prose (reminiscent of the sage it persistently describes). There are long tiresome sections of descriptive text about the weather and, repeatedly, about the sage and the rest of the landscape which can be grating but which does have an hypnotic effect after awhile.

The point of view, interestingly enough, is highly subjective as we constantly see what the main characters are seeing, especially the action as it is happening to them -- a very effective device as it creates an illusion of immediacy and the sense that you are right there with the people in the tale.

But there is not a great deal of action until the end and the characters are rather thinly drawn, especially Jane who seems so good and intelligent and yet, oddly, cannot see the darkness surrounding her in her Mormon community. The cowpoke Venters is hard to get a fix on and Lassiter, himself, seems overly passive and too good for the gunman he is said to be for much of the tale. Lots of coincidences too, drive this plot.

And yet, for all of this I liked the book. Though dragging here and there, I wanted to finish it and, indeed, it ended well if a bit melodramatically.

My copy had a foreword in it which notes the narrative's repressed sexuality throughout and I think this is accurate. It's hard to believe that two young people falling in love with one another could find themselves trapped for weeks in a hidden canyon and never reach out physically for the other. Maybe it was just the literary convention of the time. But the narrative, the descriptions of the landscape and the sage are all fraught with sexual energy and metaphor. But it is also this suppressed tension and almost surreal sense of immediacy, this dreamlike quality, which gives the tale its special power. Not particularly original or even moving, it is yet engrossing and compelling.

I find I am willing to finish fewer and fewer books these days as I grow impatient with their authors. But this one held me to the end. For all its flaws and idiosyncrasies, it worked.

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