Reviewing Zane Grey’s Classic’ Riders of the Purple Sage’

I must confess that two things which I have loved are t western films and books of that turbulent period referred to as the ‘wild west’ in American history of the 19th century. This was a period that created legends of its own in the shape of Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid and a host of other characters.

One writer who brought that period alive was Zane Grey. This man has many distinctions. He was the first millionaire writer and his popularity can be gauged from the fact that 34 of his books were published posthumously.

I have read at least 25 of his books, but the book that has made the most profound impression on me is his ‘Riders of the Purple sage’. This novel is written in a racy style and once one starts reading one can’t put it down.

‘Riders of the Purple Sage, ‘is a book that more than any other novel of the Wild West has contributed to making the legend of the Wild West come alive. Just for information the period of the Wild West refers to the period after the American civil war

The book has all the ingredients of a pot boiler with a gunfighter in a black dress, an outlaw boss and a lovely frontier woman torn between love and law. Zane Grey brings these figures alive. This novel of Zane grey is just not a western, but a novel that brings to the fore the deepest emotions of the human heart like love, honor and bravery

The plot runs something like this. There is a young and beautiful girl named Jane Withersteen, who inherits a ranch on the death of her father. The sad part is that the ranch is located in Cottonwoods which is an area dominated by the Mormons.

The Mormons were an offshoot of Christian faith and had some Bizarre customs and rituals that included multiple marriages in the same clan. The story is set in Utah in 1871 when the area was not properly policed.

There is a small rivulet called Amber spring that runs through her property and this is coveted by the Mormon Church. This rivulet supplies all the water to the settlement of the Mormons

The Mormons elders land on the ranch and wish to force Jane to marry another Mormon named Elder Tull. She refuses and the Mormons led by Elder Tull enter her ranch and arrest her foreman. They plan to whip him. A helpless Jane prays to Jesus for deliverance and lo and behold a rider in black appears. He is Lassitor, who is after the Mormons who have abducted his sister.

Zane Grey has created a most masculine and lovable character in Lassitier. A man who is quick on the draw and can fire guns like greased lightning. He is the archetype of the mythical Western gun fighter

The later novelists, who made a name for themselves, based their characters on Lassitor, Zane Grey’s creation. Jane hires Lassitor and she falls in love with him. Zane Grey made his heroines virtuous and lovely and the hero’s masculine, strong and good lovers. Needless to say Lassitor cleans up the murky Mormon dominated settlement and marries Jane

This is one of the finest books of Zane grey. He is still very popular in the States. He is a master story teller who brings the Wild West alive. It is also one of his best sellers and sold millions of copies. The best part is his prose that is simple and direct. He knows how to relate a story.

I have read this book thrice and every time and I have marveled at its grip on the reader. I think it is as a classic of American frontier fiction, colorful and authentic. It caters to the dream of an average man of a beautiful heroine and a strong man. Certainly Zane Grey has carved a niche of his own. Last but not the least Zane Grey has a clientele in India as well.

The Virginian, A Classic Western Revisited

“When you call me that, smile.” -The Virginian

The Virginian was published in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938). The novel received critical acclaim and was a huge bestseller, eventually spawning five films, a successful play, and a television series. An instant success, it sold over 20 thousand copies in the first month, an astonishing number for the time. It went on to sell over 200,000 thousand copies in the first year, and over a million and a half prior to Wister’s death. This minor classic has never been out of print. Beyond the multiple works that carry its name, The Virginian has inspired hundreds of stories about the Old West. What made this novel so appealing?

Critics give The Virginian credit for establishing the legendary storylines of the Old West and stereotypical characters of the genre. Sergio Leone’s famous protagonist had no name, nor is the Virginian’s name ever mentioned. He’s a laconic cowboy who lives by his own code and is extremely capable in every undertaking, including fighting-with fists, guns, or words. The book’s lament for a dying lifestyle has been recounted endlessly. Like the Lonesome Dove character Jake Spoon, the Virginian hangs his friend after he turns outlaw. The buildup to the climatic shootout has been repeated countless times.

Can the book’s unbroken popularity be attributed solely to being first? There were plenty of dime novels before The Virginian, but they were pretty shoddy. Wister produced the first literary example of the genre. A new story is a fresh story, and this certainly helped to generate remarkable sales at the turn of the twentieth century, but more had to be involved for decent sales to extend for over a century, and for the story to be told on stage, in movie houses, and on television.

There are three qualities that make The Virginian timeless. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, it appeals to both sexes, and it realistically portrays life on the frontier.

The narrator, Wister himself, is a city-dweller from Philadelphia, on an adventure in the Wild West. The love interest, a schoolmarm from the East, can’t fathom the Code of the West. Even the Virginian is a transplant. Not only is this a fresh tale, but one told by fresh eyes, wide open in awe of all about them. This stark, new world is described by people from another part of the planet-a part with civilization, comfortable social norms, and constable-imposed order. The Virginian is partly autobiographical and Wister uses his contemporaneous journals to inject a sense of wonderment into the story. Wister liked the Old West, and he gets us, his readers, to like it as well.

Runaway bestsellers are read by both sexes. The Virginian’s primary plot follows classic Western lines, which appeals to men. More important, Wister describes the comradeship of men in a male-dominated culture. The pranks, good-natured ribbing, displays of athletic prowess, and rough language will be recognized by any man that has played team sports or served in the military-at least those who participated before women invaded these previously exclusive male domains. To men, the Virginian’s world feels familiar and comfortable.

Wister also presents two plotlines that appeal to women. Molly Stark Wood, the heroine from Vermont, struggles in a foreign land and culture. She’s from a solid family that prides itself in education, and she’s horrified by random violence and vigilantism. How she overcomes her fears to discipline her corner of a raw frontier shows bravery by a female seldom encountered in run-of-the-mill Westerns. In most of these lesser stories, women need a valiant knight to keep them safe. Molly can get along all by herself, thank you very much. How she gets along adds spice to The Virginian.

Additionally, The Virginian is a love story. The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, he marries the heroine. And he goes to Vermont to meet her family. The clash of cultures gets turned upside down when the Virginian takes tea and banters with nonplused eastern ladies.

Wister wrote fiction, but he experienced the nineteenth-century Old West and wrote from personal experience. Many incidents in the book came from his journals. This gives the story an air of authenticity lacking in lesser works. Probably only The Virginian and Roughing It, by Mark Twain, give us actual observers’ descriptions of the Wild West. The lifestyle, implements, and ethos of the era ring true in both books-even if a bit exaggerated (again, in both books) for entertainment purposes. When we read historical fiction, realism allows us to live in another time.

The Virginian is more complicated than just being the first of a breed. It’s a good story, well told, with sophisticated subplots. The century-old literary style can make The Virginian somewhat difficult, but once you’re into the plot, you forget the more formal writing style. This is a novel that will still be selling in the twenty-second century.