Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple SageRiders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The cover of this books states that it is the book that established the traditional western. I would agree with that assessment. A campy tale of epic proportions. And it was epic, and must have been particularly so when it originally came out, but years of Purple Sage wannabe books and movies might make this seem like a corny western. It wasn’t; the pretenders were corny.

It’s a story of the Mormons staking their claim to the state of Utah, using the microcosm of the Jane Withersteen empire collapse as testimony to the effectiveness of their quest. Jane was herself a Mormon, and followed the religion dutifully, although whenever she got a taste of the outside world, her faith was shaken. To the end she was not able to reconcile the dichotomy of her faith and the intrusion of gentiles into her belief system. She befriended a gentile named Venters, while raised the ire of the evil Mormon named Tull, and although repulsed by Tull, resigned herself to his evil in the name of her religion. But even that capitulation did not shake her feelings for her fellow man, even if he was a gentile. Her confusion led to deception, not only of herself, but to those that would upset the balance of her perpetually teetering world. She was friendly, and compassionate with a naivete’ she fiercely nurtured. She was at the same time every man’s dream, and her own worst nightmare. Just the kind of woman a gun slinger named Lassiter was looking for.

Lassiter, part Clint Eastwood, part John Wayne rode into her life in time to save the hapless Venters from the wrath of Mormon thugs, and to sweep lonely Jane Withersteen off her feet. He did both. Jane only thought she believed Lassiter was a boorish savage, and maybe he was, but Jane, after some heavy chiseling, broke through the rugged veneer that encased Lassiter and found his heart. Or did he hand it over?

As for Venters, in his exile he found what he never would have had at the Cottonwoods. Sometimes what you’re looking for just shows up; all you need to do is recognize that it’s there. Maybe Venters didn’t realize what he was looking for until it presented itself. Maybe he wasn’t looking for anything. Maybe “it” was looking for him.

As with many books, there were a few issues, however, they may not have been issues at the time of publishing. Venters discovered this hidden valley. Really? How hidden could it have been, laying somewhere between the Cottonwoods, the town below, and the rustlers on the other side? And nobody knew about this place? The descriptions of the traveling among the valleys and the rocks were very hard to picture. I got some kind of idea, but I doubt it has much resemblance to the picture Zane Grey painted.

Venters has a very peculiar way of meeting women as well, but if you believe Zane Grey, a very effective pick up technique. Just shoot a girl and she’ll love you for it. Apparently, Bess forgot that is was Venters who shot her, but loved the fact that he was nursing her back to health. Chicks just love that stuff. And Venters just went bonkers over the first girl that paid attention to him. Aint love grand?

Jane wasn’t much better. The bloody, gruesome Lassiter was a turn on for her, even as she recoiled from who he was. She initially tried to get him to lay down his guns, until she realized that was what was turning her on. Chicks just love that stuff. You wonder why she wasn’t part of Tull’s harem already.

Then there was little Fay, a four year old orphan that understood the concept of love and marriage to the point of chastising the adults she wanted to bring together, but seemingly had no semblance of grief, or even curiosity as to the death of her own mother.

As abusive and unwelcoming as the Mormons were to gentiles, there were some that lived in the town below the Cottonwoods. Why would they endure the poverty and misery that would be their lot in life if they stayed there? But stay they did. Tull, the stereotypically villianous Mormon strongman, couldn’t have been very happy about it, but then, he wasn’t happy about much of anything, because he wanted Jane-and all her wealth, but had never been able to beat her in submission. He was getting close though it seemed until the gentiles went and screwed up his best laid plans.

But none of these things ruin the story, and neither did the relatively predictable ending. It was a good, entertaining western, made more interesting in that at the time this book was published, if these had been real people they would conceivably have still been alive. Who knows, maybe they were real people, or shades of many people sculpted into these characters.

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