Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

This year I’m challenging myself to read more broadly — different genres, different formats, authors from more countries, etc. A classic western fit the bill. I chose Riders of the Purple Sage because Zane Grey was my paternal grandfather’s favorite writer. My Dad mentioned that to me about twenty years ago when we were browsing in a used bookstore. My grandfather passed away before I was born and I thought that reading a book he loved would give me a little connection to him.

I didn’t know anything about this novel before picking it up other than that it was the western that established many of the tropes used in subsequent western novels and movies. I didn’t want to know too much about it, but preferred to come to it with as much of a clean slate as possible. Not that I’m going to give away any plot spoilers, but if you also want to open the book with few preconceived notions, stop reading this post now.

One of the biggest surprises about the book for me is that Mormon men are the bad guys, specifically the Mormon elders. As a history buff, I know about the formation of the LDS Church and the popular and legal attitudes toward Mormons over the years. I lived in Nevada and met a lot of Mormon women there and heard their stories of growing up LDS (which really confused me at first because LDS when I was a kid in school stood for Learning Disabled Student). I just didn’t expect a popular novel from 1912 to revolve around abusive, power-hungry Mormon men, but it actually makes perfect sense when you stop and think about how the polygamy issue was so hotly contested in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Six Riders of the Purple Sage by Edward Borein

Anyway, back to the book: Mormon elders are the bad guys. Mormon women are long suffering and the spirited ones are eventually “broken.” Good men are the ones who treat animals, women, and children with kindness and respect. There are some beautiful scenes, some hokey scenes, and lots of problems that could have been avoided had people spoken up sooner, but, overall, I think it’s an entertaining adventure story that explores the abuse of power within religion. However, I don’t know if many modern readers would have the patience to read it through unless they’re interested in western literature.

Here’s the gist of the story: Jane Withersteen is a 28-year-old single Mormon women. She inherited her father’s huge cattle spread which, most importantly, contains the water source for the local community. She refuses to marry Elder Tull, even though Bishop Dyer orders her to. Bishop Dyer was Jane’s father’s good friend and he’s like a second father to her. Jane even has the gall to befriend Gentiles (non-Mormon folk) and offers financial and moral support to those in need. And all the Gentiles in town are in need. Only the Mormons prosper. It’s a huge thorn in the sides of the Elders that Jane refuses to fall under their yoke. Things escalate.

In the opening scene, Bern Venters, Jane’s young Gentile friend and her best rider, is about to be whipped by Elder Thull. In rides Lassiter, the lean, tall rider who wears all black and packs big six irons on each hip. His name alone throws terror into the hearts of Thull and his henchmen. They take off and it turns out Lassiter showed up because he’s searching for the grave of Milly Erne, which happens to be on Jane’s land.

Lassiter is known as a Mormon killer and Jane sets out to insure he doesn’t kill anymore Mormons. He maybe a man-killer, but he’s gentle with children and rides a blind horse. The horse was cruelly and intentionally blinded by Mormon men. Later you find out what Mormon men did to Lassiter’s sister. Like Venters, Lassister doesn’t sleep under a roof, but out in the open sage. The two men quickly be-friend one another. Lassiter is from Texas. He’s 38. Venters is from Illinois and probably in his early 20s. They’ve got Jane’s back.

Venters takes off with his two trusty dogs to track the big herd of Jane’s that has recently been rustled away, presumably by local bad guy Oldring and his gang. Turns out the Mormon Elders have enlisted Oldring in their plan to slowly break Jane’s will by steadily stripping away her human support and financial resources. Jane doesn’t see it at first, but eventually it becomes so blatant that she can no longer deny it. Venters has a big surprise when he finds out the identity of Oldring’s famous masked rider. But he doesn’t find out everything right away.

Here the story splits off into two story-lines: Venters and the Oldring’s masked rider in one and Jane and Lassiter in the other. The stories run parallel and intertwine here and there. It’s actually a pretty complicated plot in some ways, more complicated than the Edge western series that I loved & devoured in high school, anyway.

There’s killing, stampedes, kidnapping of women and little girls, and some intense horse chases. One of my favorite scenes is the description of a thunderstorm rolling through a canon. The action takes place in southwest Utah in 1871. The number of men carrying guns and their inclination towards violence is attributed to men heading west after the Civil War.

Riders of the Purple Sage was published in 1912. It was Grey’s most popular novel and a sequel, The Rainbow Trail, was published in 1915. Six movie versions have been made over the years, in 1918, 1925, 1931, 1941, and 1996. It might be fun to watch them in chronological order–especially to see how the representation of women and Mormons changes over time (if it does).

Author: Zane Grey
Publisher: Harper, 1912
Free ebook available from Project Gutenberg here.
My Goodreads rating: 4/5
Recommend to: people who want to try a western or those who already love them…although I suspect those who love westerns have already read this one!
Source: library copy

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