Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) - Zane Grey, Fred Stenson, Douglas Duer "Riders of the Purple Sage" was my first western and, of course, first Zane Grey. As such, I was expecting something along the line of the classic western movies of the 40s and 50s. Obviously, it did not live up to those expectations. The hero of the book is not even a cowboy.Having said this, "Riders" was far from disappointing. It was an entertaining look at the wild west through the eyes of a man who saw at least part of it. The story is fairly well known; I knew much of it before I opened the cover. A Mormon town in Utah is held in the iron fist of the corrupt bishop Dyer and his crony, Elder Tull. The "gentiles" are being systematically eliminated. Jane Withersteen, owner of a large ranch, is a lone Mormon woman struggling to stand up for justice. Out of the west rides a man in black with huge black guns slung low on his hips. His name, Lassiter, strikes terror in the hearts of the Mormon men. He arrives seeking to enact a terrible vengeance on the men who deceived and despoiled a woman he loved. All of that sounds very western, but Mr. Grey does not employ the conventions of the westerns of which I was thinking. Indeed, those conventions probably did not exist when he wrote. There is very little in the way of gunplay and showdowns between the good guys and bad guys. The emphasis is more on the relationships that develop between the major characters and the revelations about their individual histories. There are romances that develop slowly between Jane Withersteen and Lassiter, and Bern Venters (one of Jane's gentile ranch hands) and the mysterious Bess. There is the secret of Lassiter's past that fuels his vengeance and links him to Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull. Mr. Grey does an excellent job of creating suspense as he develops these and other plot lines over the course of the novel, and that is what held my attention most. He does not completely reveal his hand until the last page. The gunfights and desperate showdowns eventually do come, but they are the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. They fit naturally into the flow of the narrative and the results are completely gratifying. One of the plot lines that must be considered has to do with the role of religion in the life of a community and an individual, and the question of how much influence a religious organization should wield. This is a complex question that cannot be easily answered. I'm sorry to say that Grey does not treat this subject with the care that it requires. In the case of the community in "Riders", the Mormon church is a tyrant that seeks absolute, unquestioned obedience from its people, even in the face of the evil that its leaders perpetrate. There are no nuances, there is nothing to mediate that view, so it has the appearance of a straw-man argument. This detracts from the book's overall value.Looking at it as literature, it must be said that there is something a little awkward about Zane Grey's prose. His style can be clumsy. The dialogue is frequently melodramatic, and there are phrases that he employs far too often; "purple sage" being one of them. It was almost comical at times, and that was not the effect he was after, I'm certain. Further, the main characters tended to be one dimensional. Lassiter is a cowboy superman who, in spite of the revelations about his past, lacks depth. Jane Withersteen is naive almost to the point of willful stupidity. Dyer and Tull are evil only for the sake of being evil. Yes, there really are people like that, but I wanted to know if there was a reason for their evil. As with all things, "Riders" must be read with discernment so as to avoid painting with the same broad brush that Grey uses. In spite of these shortcomings, "Riders of the Purple Sage" was an enjoyable read. It's an odd book; neither as shallow as shoot-'em-up, B-movie westerns, but not as deep as John Ford. I can't quite pin it down, but it's somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. There are times when I'm not looking for deep, complex characters or real analyses of difficult questions, when all I'm looking for is a bit of brain candy. Though it is more thoughtful than most brain candy, it is in that context that "Riders" most fully satisfies. I will read it again.