Home > 1910, 20th Century, American Literature, Grey Zane, Made into a film, Western > Stormy riders or when I read my first western

Stormy riders or when I read my first western

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. 1912. Not translated into French.

An’ I’d like you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody. You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’ I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders. An’ we have—what you’ve lived through these last months. It can’t be helped. But it can’t last always. An’ remember his—some day the border’ll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like Lassiter!”

Grey_Zane_RidersI have to confess that all I know about westerns are clichés. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at night and I missed the opportunity to see the most famous ones. As an adult, I have trouble watching films on DVDs and on TV. I tend to fall asleep or be distracted. I find it difficult to be absorbed in a movie seen on a television screen. For me, cinema means going out to see a film in a dark room among strangers and if you pick the right films, you might even avoid the pop-corn munchers. This explains why I have seen so little old movies and thus have not caught up with all the westerns I should have seen at my respectable age. But back to the book.

Riders of the Purple Sage opens with a typical western scene. We’re in 1871 at the border of Utah. A young Gentile* man, Bern Venters is about to get whipped in the sage for befriending Jane Withersteen, a Mormon young woman. Tull, the Minister of the Mormon Church in Cottonwoods wants to whip and exile Venters and intends to marry Jane. She’s the richest person of the village; she owns a ranch, herds and the only source of water. She’s a catch. Jane refuses Tull and Venters is in a desperate situation when Lassiter shows up and drives Tull and his men away. This dramatic scene is the start of everything. Lassiter, a well-known gun-man arrived at Cottonwoods to understand what happened to Milly Fern. His interfering in Jane and Venter’s business will break the peace. Tull now craves for revenge and will do everything in his power to ruin Jane, morally and financially. The neighbourhood is also hunted by rustlers led by Oldridge accompanied by his Masked Rider. They steal cattle and nobody knows where the animals are led. When Jane’s red herd disappears, Venters heads for Deception Pass, where the herds vanish, decided to avoid Tull and discover where Oldridge and his riders hide. His encounter with Oldridge’s men is violent and he almost kills the Masked Rider, only to discover that he’s a she, Bess.

The novel follows two story strands, one with Jane and Lassiter in Cottonwoods and another one with Venters and Bess in the sage. Their paths cross, they help each other as they’re on the same side. The four main characters have to go through their personal journey and the events unravel before our eyes. The four of them are tortured souls, for different reasons. The four of them will have their epiphany.

Jane Withersteen is a very pious woman. She was raised a Mormon, she has a deep faith and she respects her bishop and her minister. When she refuses Tull, here’s what she’s told:

Marry Tull. It’s your duty as a Mormon. You’ll feel no rapture as his wife—but think of Heaven! Mormon women don’t marry for what they expect on earth. Take up the cross, Jane.

Isn’t that cheerful and awfully tempting? The American version of “Close your eyes and think of England”. I found Zane Grey extremely hard on the Mormon community in Cottonwoods. They are Christian zealots who preach a message they don’t practice. Women are oppressed and churchmen take advantage of their spiritual power to keep a hold on the population. Gentiles are discriminated. Jane is brainwashed and doesn’t see them as men with flaws but as churchmen, better men than others, by definition. The events force her to acknowledge the truth and Lassiter will be the messenger.

Lassiter is also a broken soul. He’s driven by his quest: what has become of Milly Ern? It makes him relentless and lonely. He has everything of the ragged hero hiding a heart of gold. Jane will force him to reconsider his lifestyle and his goals in life.

Venters the Gentile was a pariah and his encounter with Bess will change him. He will find his true self in the wilderness and the passages of his exploration of the canyons and the valleys are simply beautiful. They echo his stormy inner mind and he becomes one with his surroundings:

When he gained the cover of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then he saw how the trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of rain had run down the slope, circling, eddying in depressions, wearing deep round holes. There had been dry seasons, accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and cedars rose wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if growth were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old. Theirs had been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange sympathy for them. This country was hard on trees—and men.

Venters discovers a secluded valley that be baptises Surprise Valley. Its description is like a time machine, bringing back Venters and Bess to Paradise before the fall. Grey pictures striking landscapes inhabited with lively fauna:

Out of his cave he saw the exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces crossing a round space of blue morning sky; and in this lacy leafage fluttered a number of gray birds with black and white stripes and long tails. They were mocking-birds, and they were singing as if they wanted to burst their throats.

I wanted to go there and see everything with my own eyes. He has a gift for cinematographic descriptions. There’s a superb scene where Venters chases after another rider. It’s gripping, the ride described so precisely I imagined I was on horseback with Venters. He also knows how to build tension, like here when Venters is in a critical situation:

Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths.

Can’t you imagine him? This book also came with a mental soundtrack. I know I should have been hearing music by Ennio Morricone when I was reading but all I could think about was the haunting Riders on the Storm by The Doors. Add to the mix that I had reached the page of Red River Valley in my piano textbook and there was no room left for classic western soundtrack. I was all with riders and cowboys. Sorry.

Considering the time this book stayed in the Currently Reading box, you’d think it’s 800 pages long instead of 300ish. It took me ages to go through the descriptions of the landscapes, of the rides and of Vender walking in the canyons. I had trouble with the vocabulary related to herds and had to pause to imagine the men riding in the different paths. I paused to polish mental pictures of the scenes I was reading. I had also to deal with the spoken language with sentences like this “An’ they jest froze up—thet dark set look thet makes them strange an’ different to me.” or this “Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve, or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. I had to tell the words in my head to figure out what they meant and imagine the accent. Since I have a terrible French accent when I speak English, I’m not sure I really figured out how these men were speaking. However, I will always marvel at the elasticity of the English language. You can’t really do that in French; it’s hard to transcribe accents.

Although it demanded a tremendous amount of concentration to me, I highly recommend Riders of the Purple Sage. It has all the qualities of a great book. It’s gripping, well-written and well-constructed. I need to thank Max for recommending this novel to me. So thanks, Max, that was a treat and I didn’t know Zane Grey. I looked him up on Wikipedia, though. He was the first writer to become rich thanks to his books. His novels are currently out of print in French and that’s a shame. I suppose westerns aren’t fashionable anymore.

* All along the novel, Gentile will be used to define non-Mormon characters. Don’t ask me why. Lack of a better word?

  1. December 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Maybe you can fill in some Westerns at next year’s Lumière Festival.

    Did you read Lucky Luke as a kid? I was somehow sure Lucky Luke would be mentioned.

    You will get to hear some of those accents in real life on your trip next summer. And see some of that amazing scenery.

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    • December 18, 2013 at 12:44 am

      Yes, perhaps. I’ve never been to this festival but I’ve heard it’s good. (and you need to buy your tickets way in advance.)

      I’ve read Lucky Luke and my children watch it on TV (cartoon). It didn’t come to mind. Riders of the Purple Sage is to dark to remind me of Lucky Luke.

      I’m afraid I’ll mostly see tourists between me and the scenery. I have painful memories of a group of tourists cackling and taking countless pictures of the beautiful Peyto Lake. Instead of a peaceful observation of a natural wonder, it was crowded as a metro station. Well, I was in their way too. It would require hiking to have access to secluded places as the ones mentioned in the book.

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  2. December 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    I saw the TV movie of this, late one night on TCM (unlike you I prefer watching DVDs and movies on TV if they are in the original language). It’s an absolutely stunning film, starring Ed harris as Lassiter. That’s why I bought the book. I thought if it’s only half as good as the film it’s amazing. It’s quite possible I’d like the book as the movie is very quite, long landscape shots. I can’t remember the score (not the Doors though 🙂 – but I think it would work. Morrison had some sort of epiphany on a desert road. It involved anaccident with Indians – lizard king and all that comes from there). I’m really tempted to read it soon but would even be more tempted to rewatch that film only I can’t find it on DVD.

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    • December 19, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      I’d like to see the film, I’m curious to see the landscapes. The book is really cinematographic. I hope you’ll review it when you read it.

      I’m a HUGE fan of the Doors. I know about Jim Morrison’s experience in the desert, I have his poems at home, I’ve seen When You’re Strange…

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  3. Brian Joseph
    December 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I have read few Westerns but I really should read this one as in many ways it is a template of so many ideas that came after. I think that some of the cliches that you mention were actually invented by Grey. The descriptions, as you describe them made this sound particularly appealing.

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    • December 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      Since it was published in 1912, I thought he could be the writer who set the parameters for the genre.
      It’s worth reading, really.

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  4. December 20, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I know I wouldn’t like this. The language would drive me crazy for one thing

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    • December 20, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      I didn’t imagine you’d be that opposed to reading it.
      Fortunately, the quotes with the accent come from one character. The others think and speak in proper English. It’s still difficult for me to read.

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  5. Vishy
    December 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I have heard of Zane Grey as he is probably a canonical author of westerns, but I haven’t read any of his books. This book looks wonderful. I loved all the passages you have quoted, especially the first one about the trees. I am a huge fan of westerns, though I haven’t read any western novel except for James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. I mostly watch western movies and read western comics. You mentioned Ennio Morricone and so I am sure you would have already watched it, but if you haven’t do give ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ a try. It is my favourite western movie of all time. One of my other favourites is ‘High Noon’, which is based on a scene from the novel ‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister. My favourite western comic hero is Tex Willer. The stories featuring Tex were published originally in Italian. Most of the stories are very intricately plotted and well written and the artwork is breathtaking. I don’t know whether you can read Italian, but I hope you can find a French translation of some of the books in this series.

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    • December 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks Vishy. I enjoyed reading Riders of the Purple Sage, the descriptions of the landscapes are gorgeous. I was surprised that the villains were Mormons. I wonder if Grey had trouble with that when the book was published.

      I should read The Last of the Mohicans. Is it good?

      Many thanks for the film recommendations.

      I’ve never heard of Tex Willer but I checked that up and the comics are available in French. I’ll try one. There may be some at the library.

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      • December 23, 2013 at 3:47 pm

        ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is wonderful, Emma. It is part of a series featuring the same main character and it is the most famous novel in that series. Some readers don’t regard ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ as a western, because it was published nearly a century before the name ‘western’ came into vogue, but it has many of the elements of a western. I hope you enjoy reading it. Glad to know that Tex Willer comics are available in French translation. I hope you enjoy reading them. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on Tex’ adventures.

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  6. January 9, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    I’d completely forgotten that I’d recommended this, then got to the bottom of your review and was reminded. I’m glad you liked it, I found it hugely enjoyable.

    The Mormons get a very bad press in some 19th Century fiction. One of the Sherlock Holmes has evil Mormons as the villains too. They were less established of course, which I think led to some viewing them as a sort of cult – it seems odd now but I have a feeling that many may have seen them as rather sinister back then.

    Brian makes a good point on cliche. It’s the same as with Raymond Chandler. Sometimes you have to remind yourself (well, I have to remind myself) that this isn’t cliche – this is the concepts being invented and the cliche is everyone copying them later.

    I read another Zane Grey, I forget which, and it wasn’t nearly as good. I’m sure he has other good ones, but I think this is often seen as his best. Another western I enjoyed though was True Grit – the novel the films are based on. It has a wonderful central female character/voice.

    High Noon is an extraordinary film. I had no idea it was based on a book (in fact I’m not sure I knew that The Virginian was a book – I thought that was a different film).

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    • January 9, 2014 at 9:20 pm

      Well, it was a good recommendation. (Have I ever been disappointed by one of your recommendations, anyway?)
      I think that the Mormons are listed as a cult here, but I’m not sure.
      You’re right in your comparison with Chandler. You have to remember that they created their genre and that the others are copying.

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