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Writer of the Purple Phrase!

  • Jan 2, 2000
Zane Grey was a fixture in American letters when it came to the Western. In fact, one might suggest that he invented the modern form of it (though, of course, there were writers of dime novel westerns before him, not to mention James Fenimore Cooper and his leatherstocking tales). But Grey certainly did someting memorable and lasting with the form, if this book is any measure. I had never read Grey before, so I picked this one up with some uncertainty. Thought I could not count myself well-read until I'd tried one of his books and this seemed to be the one with the most literary weight. It's certainly named well enough. As it happens, I enjoyed the book in the end, but have to admit that it is weak in a number of serious ways. Set in Mormon Utah in the late 1800's, it's the tale of a young Mormon woman who is the sole heir of her father and owner of the substantial ranch he has left her. Because of the significance of her ranch and because she is a rather headstrong young woman, the Mormon elders feel it essential to rein her in and get her married into the fold as quickly as they can. One particular Mormon Elder, a man named Tull, has his eye on her especially, with the support of his mysterious Bishop. But Jane, pious as she is, demurs, recognizing that becoming one more of Tull's wives (in those days the Mormons were still taking several wives) will only strip her of her freedom and clout in the little community (which she has inherited along with her father's extensive ranch). The story opens with Tull and his other pious brethren about to administer a sound thrashing to a young cow hand who has been working for the heroine, Jane Withersteen, and who Jane has been flirting with. Jane is powerless to prevent the beating and worse until the appearance, out of the hazy, distant horizon, of a man called Lassiter. Lassiter proves to be a hard sort and a known gunman with a special dislike for Mormons. His arrival proves salutary and the end of it is he stays on with Jane at the ranch while the cow hand heads out and the Mormons scatter, tails between their legs. Jane sets out to convince Lassiter that not all Mormons are bad while the Mormon elders conspire to bring Jane down by scaring off all her Mormon and non-Mormon ranch hands. Meanwhile, the esrstwhile cow hand (his name escapes me) stumbles onto the secret hide-out of the rustlers who have been robbing the honest folk in the area. There are lots of chases and hiding outs and some gun play. The cow hand finds his love in an unlikely place in the box canyon in which he holes up (hard to believe this man and his intended are together an entire week, feel the way they do about each other and yet never touch one another, but it was a simpler time then, wasn't it?), the gunman hangs around Jane who exerts her feminine wiles to get him to give up his guns before he can hurt anymore Mormons, and the Mormon elders continue their nefarious schemes to break Jane to the halter. Thoughout it all, Lassiter seems oddly passive and inert for the deadly, single-minded gunman he is made out to be. And yet, one of the remarkable things about this book is the rich prose in which the landscape is surrealistically painted, which gives it both its title and the feel that this is more than just a silly story about good guys and bad guys. And there is a strong sense of suppressed sexuality underlying the entire tale here as embodied in the highly visual rendering of the countryside, its canyons, its sage and its sky. The descriptiveness of the narrative is, however, somewhat repetitive and overdone as though apparently reflecting the turbulent emotions of the characters themselves, as though their innermost feelings are laid bare upon the landscape of their tale. The ending is a bit melodramatic too and rather predictable, but, in all, I can see why this tale has the good name it's got. It's intriguing and enthralling (it kept me reading through to the end -- a harder thing these days as my eyes are not what they used to be and I have less patience than I once did for the fictional word). But in comparison with many other works which I have read and enjoyed, I had to conclude that this one is not quite in their league.

Using the amazon "five star" system, I usually reserve five stars for the really good to the great, four for the pretty damned good to the good, and three to the "good but" category. This one is thus a "three" on that measure since it was strongly enough written to carry me as a reader and interesting enough in its unexpectedly powerful use of language but, in the end, that very usage went over the top and slid into the dream-like purple of the sage in which the characters cavort. And the characterizations, themselves, are rather stilted, the tale kind of flat and just plain contrived. I think it is the underlying sexual energy in the writing which really carries the day. "Good but . . . "

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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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 of this title.
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ISBN-10: 0848813499
ISBN-13: 978-0848813499
Author: Zane Grey
Publisher: Amereon Limited

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