The Light of Western Stars by Zane Grey – Western Book Review for April 2021

“The law of the desert had always been to give food and drink to wayfaring men, whether lost or hunted or hunting.”

– The Light of Western Stars by Zane Grey

Being on something of a mission to write reviews of western novels with a modern, non-genre or new-to-the-genre reader in mind, is sometimes awkward, and I fear that sometimes it interferes with my ability to ‘just enjoy.’

Aside from a florid style which modern readers may not be used to, there is another significant barrier between this book and a whole-hearted recommendation from myself.

I can’t deny that this novel reads as having a significant racist attitude problem. Mexicans, generalized and particularized, are not portrayed very well at all. I strongly suspect that the attitudes were more consciously a reflection of nationalist pride (a white protestant nationalist pride) than anything else – and today’s readers should keep in mind that mainstream attitudes in general were different over 100 years ago – but there’s really no way to get around the fact that some passages in this book concerning Mexicans read really quite shocking today.

I note that at the time this novel was written (it was published in 1914) there were people alive who had personal memories of the Mexican-American War, and the Mexican Revolution was underway. Indeed, the Mexican Revolution plays a part in the plot of the novel.

There are also some aspects of the portrayal of ideal womanhood, romance and marriage that may be off-putting.

I can’t really compare this book’s social attitudes with other books of it’s time because I haven’t read very many others.

Anyway, despite these ‘problematics’, this proved to be another mostly-enjoyable Zane Grey novel for me.

Told from the viewpoint of Madeline Hammond, Majesty to her friends, we follow her on a quest to find contentment and understanding of herself. She is a member of the wealthy upper classes in the Eastern USA, she has travelled Europe and seen the Himalayas, but she has never been to The West. Restless and unfulfilled in her leisurely life and unhappy with the prospect of marrying one of her many admirers among ‘her class’, she determines to visit her brother. Her brother has been disgraced in some way (I don’t remember how – I’m not even sure we’re told – gambling himself into debt perhaps?) and he moved out west and started a ranch there in New Mexico. Defying her family’s wishes, Madeline takes to the train and arrives at the small town closest to his ranch, outrunning the message that she will visit. Since her brother does not know she’s coming, he’s not there to meet her.

Instead, while wearing a veil over her face, (I assume this was common fashion in 1914) she encounters a drunken Gene Stewart, whose arrival, in a neat case of writers acknowledging other writers, reminds her of a character in The Virginian. He decides they should get married – right away – without seeing her face – and he has a priest perform a service, in Spanish, which Madeline does not fully understand.

Then Gene discovers that she is Madeline Hammond, and he is ashamed, and takes her to Florence’s house. Heroic ‘western girl’ Florence, we learn, is engaged to Madeline’s brother.

To a modern reader, it becomes quite strongly a possibility that Gene Stewart is a man struggling with PTSD.

I don’t want to give all of the plot away…

Later on, we will learn that the Big Bad in this story is a Don Carlos, a rancher with connections over the border in Mexico, suspected of being a gunrunner and generally being a nasty guy, who has been making things difficult for the honest ranchers in the area, including Madeline’s brother Alfred.

Fortunately for the honest ranchers and cowboys, Madeline has inherited a lot of money, and she is able to buy everyone out of financial trouble. She also modernizes operations and installs a number of improvements, which are completed really rather unbelievably quickly.  There still remains the threat of Mexican bandits in general and Don Carlos in particular.

There are a couple of places in this novel where I felt there were some minor “continuity errors” and “well that’s pretty convenients.”

There is a bit of a teetotalling sentiment expressed which likely reflects Mr Grey’s own sentiments (and which I tend to lean towards agreeing with.)

“Work, of course, has much to do with any one’s happiness,” replied Madeline. “No one can be happy who has no work.”

Madeline finds her purpose in taming the land and its inhabitants, bringing her ideas of civilization to the rude cowboys, who are at first in awe of her outer beauty and then later impressed by her character, but still she is not quite content – there remains the question of love and marriage. This is eventually resolved in high romantic, dramatic fashion, as one suspects it will be from the start.

“That bold world of broken rock under the slow mustering of storm-clouds was a grim, awe-inspiring spectacle. It had beauty, but beauty of the sublime and majestic kind. The fierce desert had reached up to meet the magnetic heights where heat and wind and frost and lightening and flood contended in everlasting strife. And before their onslaught this mighty upflung world of rugged stone was crumbling, splitting, wearing to ruin.”

Throughout the novel, the florid style brings us wonderful descriptions of landscape and weather and action.

There are a few diversions, such as a chapter about playing golf, straying from the main plot line in a way that a modern editor would likely not tolerate, but which add charm and some smiles. There is also a quite enjoyable segment in which all that happens is people sit around a campfire and swap tales, but it keeps your attention anyway. And I was delightedly surprised by a scene built around the introduction of a bread-mixer to the ranch.

These sorts of diversions would, sadly, likely be nixed by a modern editor, since they do slow down the delivery of the main plot.

If you’re the sort of reader who gets annoyed with description and diversion, this book is not for you.

Madeline Hammond may not seem as obviously a heroine as Florence to some, but her ‘fight’ is largely with herself, a quest of self-discovery and a breaking with her past. It seems to me that for her time, she makes a number of fairly daring decisions, and although she is also sometimes somewhat unfortunately a less active participant than one would really like to see from their heroines, I believe this in places reflects the realities of general womanhood of 1914.

There is a plea for people to learn more about how their food is produced and how those working in the food chain live that is still relevant today.

As in Riders of the Purple Sage, this story eventually accelerates into an exciting ride towards the finale – in this case, instead of a horse chase, we are given a chase between a motorcar and time. It is, instead of a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, Madeline who must ride to the rescue of a bachelor in a bind.  (Thanks for that term, Joe Z.) There is dynamite and a car jump!

This is a western novel that I might not feel I can recommend to just anyone, due to some of it’s out-of-date attitude and expressions, but I can recommend it to those who are willing to overlook or accept them as historical realities, and get on to enjoying this romantic adventure.

While I was happy enough to watch the film, I enjoyed reading the novel more. It was (unsurprisingly) more consistent. (It had more time!)

Differences I noticed between the novel and the 1940 film, which I review here: [CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS]

“You met some woman on Number Eight, didn’t you?” shouted Hawe. “I met a lady,” replied Stewart, quiet an’ menacin’ like.

These are the only lines that I recorded from the film which I noticed more or less also in the novel.

Missing from the novel, to my disappointment, is much discussion at all about the rights and wrongs of intervening in ‘someone else’s’ wars – in as much as it comes up, opposite to the sentiment expressed in the film, the general sense in the novel seems to be that the United States should keep away from foreign intervention, and that they need to resist attempts to be drawn in to neighbour’s wars. It’s in interesting contrast between the two stances, one published in 1914 during the First World War, and one from 1940 during the Second. (Both before American involvement in either.) Also missing from the novel is any discussion about giving children toy guns.

A significant difference, and to the credit of the film, is that the anti-Mexican sentiment is toned down significantly when compared to the novel. The Big Bad in the film is a white gunrunner. The corrupt sheriff is present in both.

In the novel, Gene Stewart’s horse is ‘iron gray’ and then he has another, which is a roan. In the film, there are repeated references to the horse as a palomino. I’m guessing this is because palominos look more impressive on black and white film.

Florence and Madeline argue in the film, but in the novel, they are quite friendly. Both women get more to do in the book than in the film. The novel is much more focused on Madeline than the film.

There are, if I’m remembering the film correctly, entire chapters missing from the film, which makes sense since the film is only an hour long.

The film character Poco does not exist at all in the novel.

Danny Mains – the character that Alan Ladd plays in the film? In the film, as I recall, we’re just told he died off screen. In the novel, this character marries the former ‘saloon girl’ Bonita, gets rich and lives happily ever after. And, going a significant way towards explaining why Alan Ladd got this part, this is how he’s described in the novel: “He resembled a cowboy in his lithe build, his garb and action…but his face, instead of being red, was clear brown tan. His eyes were blue; his hair was light and curly. He was a handsome, frank-faced boy.”

I enjoyed being able to compare this book to the film – I’d also like to see the 1930 film version someday and see what that does differently as well.

Thanks again for letting me join you in the 2021 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon!

4 thoughts on “The Light of Western Stars by Zane Grey – Western Book Review for April 2021”

  1. Palominos always look impressive! I know I have some Zane Grey on my bookshelf, but I can’t remember what it is… animal stories maybe? Shall have to look.

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  2. I definitely liked the book better in a lot of ways. More character development is always a good thing 🙂

    I think a lot of b&w cowboy movies liked to use palominos, buckskins, and pintos because it’s still easy to tell one from the other without color to help, so you can tell the different characters’ horses apart. I’ve come to think that there’s a bit of a code going on with them, too — straight-arrow good guys ride palominos, funny and or rambunctious younger guys get pintos, and morally grey characters often get the buckskins. I really wonder why more b&w movies didn’t use Appaloosas, though, as they’re also visually striking and easy to spot. Hmm.

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  3. I like that you have a theory about who gets which horses! Also, it makes sense that ease-of-differentiation while in black and white would play a role 🙂

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