Well, they do say this is one of the most popular western novels of all time.
It’s likely not a huge favourite of devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but…
I found this book a challenge that eventually paid off. I downloaded an e-book version from Amazon several months ago, intended to review it earlier, but had to set it aside in exasperation. This month, I took it up again, set it down again, read a couple of other books, and finally said to myself, “Self, you’re going to either read Riders of the Purple Sage now or never,” and here we are.
Much like The Virginian, the initial trouble was stylistic. Being from 1912, it’s writing style – with it’s lengthy, descriptive sentences, and it’s occasional “tell instead of show” of character’s emotions required adjustment from this modern reader. I found it fairly annoying to have one of the show-downs recounted in flash back by a character who was written speaking in dialect. Unlike The Virginian, this story does not have much humour at all, which did not help it’s cause with me. The truth is that it took me well over half the length of this 250+ page book before I started feeling really excited about reading more of it.
But when it finally gets going… and once you decide to stop questioning the likelihood of some of it’s events and geography…yeesh, there are some genuinely exciting bits.
This is the tale of a woman who defies the expectations of her religious leaders, arousing the jealousy of the man who expects to marry her (who would incidentally come to control the richest, best watered land in her community when they married) when she favours an unbeliever who works for her. It is about her finding two champions – her hired guy, and a mysterious gunfighter who arrives as the book begins. (Yep, mysterious gunfighters are popular in this genre, and maybe in part because of the success of this novel.)
It is a tale of two romances. Romance takes up a lot of ink here, and it’s a bit… silly. (And it’s told old-fashionedly, okay. It’s not going to get graphic. There is one exposed breast, that’s it. Calm down.)
The characterizations are… a bit besides the point.
There are rustlers, child-nappers, and fast horses. Plot twists, some predictable, but a couple of which I genuinely did not see coming. Such a great horse chase toward the end!
I’ve read before that this novel is felt to be unfairly prejudiced against Mormons, but I have to say, while admitting I’m not a member of that community, I didn’t find it to be too bad in it’s anti-Mormonism. Most of the bad guys are leaders in the Mormon church, and it’s implied that many Mormon women were unfairly treated under the strictures of their faith and the practise of polygamy particularly, and it condemns fanatical adherence to religion, but it doesn’t say “all Mormons are bad” anywhere, that I noticed. I do wonder if there was perhaps some particular concern about the interaction or integration of Mormons with mainstream America at the time it was written that it was perhaps capitalizing upon.
I’ve also read that there are different “versions” of this novel – that which was originally published after being “toned down” for publication, and that which Zane Grey actually intended to have published – I don’t know which one I got.
The finale is a bit heavily-handedly-telegraphed, but it satisfyingly, albeit a bit surprisingly comes to a stop right there at the when it’s over it’s over mark. (There was a sequel published in 1915.)
What I would conclude with this is this – yes, you might find Riders of the Purple Sage difficult to read at first – try sticking with it, and you will hopefully be as happily surprised by it’s eventual vigour as I was. It gets exciting, my friends. Really, it does. Exciting enough to make up for the slow start? Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that some more.