Editor's Note: This is a guest piece from a new contributor, Eric Onkenhout. He's an expert in all things pulp and Star Wars and we hope to see more of his work around here. Without further ado, here is his review of pulp classic Riders of the Purple Sage.
I’m back this month for another book review; this time I’ll being reviewing another classic. If you’ve read my previous reviews you’ll notice that they both were of classic science fiction books. This time I wanted to change it up a bit and tackle a book I’ve been wanting to read for a few years; Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey which was published in 1912. It’s about as different from science fiction as you can get.
I decided to trade in rocket ships for life on the range in turn of the (20th) century Utah. Before I get into the actual review I apologize for being a little later in the month compared to my previous reviews. I started reading this early in December, then life happened and on top of that the holidays appeared on my doorstep, along with an independent film called Rogue One—it all sort of anchored my book to my nightstand.
Okay onward! I wanted to read and review Riders of the Purple Sage because as an aspiring writer, we’re taught to venture out of your sandbox and play in someone else’s. Science fiction has always been an interest of mine, and as some know, western movie and story influence in science fiction is commonplace (see Star Wars, Firefly, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica etc…). So I thought why not read the western novel that started it all?
I borrowed this copy of Riders of the Purple Sage from my local library. I believe this particular copy was printed in 1940. It is a hard cover sans dust jacket. The cover itself is divided into two colors, ¾ quarters maroon red and ¼ a sandy yellow. It consisted of 280 pages with 23 chapters. And now for the story itself.
This western was published in 1912, and is Zane Grey’s most famous work. It has been adapted to film five different times from 1918-1996. It is generally thought of as the original western. Riders of the Purple Sage is a morality tale that either redeems or destroys its characters. The background of this story is, like I said earlier, Utah. There is a substantial amount of religious references mainly discussing either Mormon or Gentile (which is a term I was only familiar with through a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.). The main female protagonist, Jane Withersteen is a Mormon rancher who is pressured by her community to marry a Mormon Elder. She refuses to do this because she is in love with a non-Mormon called Venters.
Along their paths they encounter a man called Lassiter who is a well-known killer of Mormons. Lassiter decides to help Jane fight persecution from her community. After spending time with Jane, Lassiter’s nomadic cowboy toughness begins to fade, as does Jane’s relationship with her church. Throughout the story, Grey paints a beautiful picturesque landscape.
As I usually do when I read, I paid especially close attention to how it was written—the word choice. I’ll do this throughout the review, and sometimes I do this at the sacrifice of the story. Maybe I should’ve been an English teacher or maybe it’s the Virgo in me that looks too closely at detail. Anyway, There is a great passage in chapter 2 describing the setting that I had to take note of. It begins…
The pale afterglow in the west darkened with the merging of twilight into night.
Not sure what it was, but that line really hit me as the perfect way to write a sunset. Another example…
The sun lost its heat and wore down to the western horizon.
How great is that? As a student of writing, I could only dream of being so descriptive using so few words.
In chapter 4, Zane Grey uses his mastery of words to describe the sound of silence…
There was a drowsy hum of insects, but no other sound disturbed the midday stillness.
Jumping to chapter 9, there is a wonderful passage…
While he ate, the sun set beyond a dip in the rim of the curved wall. As the morning sun burst wondrously through a grand arch into this valley, in a golden, slanting shaft, so the evening sun, at the moment of setting, shone through a gap of cliffs, sending down a broad red burst to brighten the oval with a blaze of fire. To Venters both sunrise and sunset were unreal.
Apparently, the theme so far is the sun, either setting or rising. I suppose it could symbolize the morality roller coaster within the story.
The subject of gun control in today’s world is a conversation for a different medium, however in the days of old westerns, guns were seemingly owned by everyone and their brother and his kitchen sink. In chapter 11, there is a great scene depicting Jane Withersteen removing her pistols from their sheaths…
Jane slipped her hands down to the swinging gunsheaths, and when she had locked her fingers around the huge, cold handles of the guns, she trembled as with a chilling ripple over all her body.
Some might suggest that Grey’s writing is a little overwritten. Given the time frame of this story—when it was written and when it takes place, I think it fits the story perfectly. I liken it to George Lucas and how he decided that the dialogue from the prequels is a little more regal than in the original trilogy; because it takes place in a time when people spoke differently (more elegantly some might say). To wrap it up, if you interested in getting into westerns and don’t know where to start, the beginning always is a good place.
Try Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. You won’t regret it.