Book Review: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (Three Stars)

Book Review: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Three Stars out of Five

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. Actually, I didn’t. I started skimming halfway through. The plot is obvious and the writing repetitive. Sentimental, though many of the sentiments are foreign today. Fortunately, it ends strong.

Hard to believe this is Grey’s best-selling book. Lassiter is, of course, a cliché but Grey deserves credit for making his type so iconic, diminished not enhanced by his broken verbiage. Jane was a stereotype which modern writers (and readers) eschew, though she finally opens her eyes. (Not to mention her fainting spells.) The Masked Rider’s identity was obvious. The word “purple” recurs often enough to gag the color-sensitive reader. We get it; enough. (Sage blossoms are closer to mauve or lavender, but Grey sought a different image. Not that there’s anything wrong with mauve or lavender.)

Because this book was written over a hundred years ago and only forty years after its setting, one might assume it close to historical fiction. Not so. Most of it is imagined. (The West was a favored fantasy setting of that era.) In 1871 Utah was embroiled in the Black Hawk War, yet the only mention of natives was the discovery of ancient cliff dwellings.

Mormons will, of course, object to this portrayal of their men, but such was the attitude in Grey’s day. Some practices and attitudes he vilified in 1912 still appear in contemporary headlines. Further, Grey seems to blame Mormons and religion in general for ruining the west. And interesting idea. In a way they did, depending on how you define “ruin” and “west.” The explorers, mountain men, gold prospectors and soldiers didn’t do half the damage of the mold-board plow, schools and railroads. The West was won—or lost, depending on your perspective—by families who came to make it home.

Quibble. Sage only blooms for a week or two, yet this story goes on for month, and Grey continues to refer to the purple sage to the end.

Many of the big action scenes take place off stage with some witness describing them after the fact. The horse race was well set up and executed. The climax redeems the whole book (and earns it an additional star)

I liked it, but not enough that I’m likely to read more. Three stars.