Riders of the purple sage by

A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.
–Zane Grey - Riders of the purple sage - c. 1912, 1990

Jane Withersteen is a single woman who wields power despite her Mormon faith. She should be married, have given up control of her ranch and her property to her husband, but she has remained stubbornly single. Her bishop is not happy. Her father was a good Mormon, Jane is often told, he would not be happy to see how she behaves. In all other ways however she is devout Mormon, although perhaps a bit too charitable to non-Mormons for the elders of her church.

But her life is about to change; the elders have decided that enough is enough, and moves are being made against her, to bring her back in line with her religion.

When she interferes in the “whipping” of a non-Mormon who continues to work for her after being warned off she goes a step too far. Luckily, just in time to save the man, Venters, comes Lassiter. The Mormon-hater.

I added this book to Mount TBR way back in 2010 and it has obviously sat on my shelves for long enough, 4 years isn’t that long is it?

Supposedly this is one of Grey’s most famous novels, and my edition has an introduction by Jane Tompkins, who1 has written quite a bit on American fiction. I’ve skimmed through it2 and it seems quite a scholarly article, with a bit of a biography of Grey. Interesting enough, but something for another time perhaps.

I seem to be reading quite a few westerns this year, well, more than is usual for me anyway, but this one seems to be the most classically western of them all. If has the damsel in distress, rescued by the stranger who rides into town3 , there is cattle rustling and a stampede, love and secrets.

And lots of purple.

That’s what stood out when I first started reading the book, how many times the word purple was used in the opening few pages. But I guess Grey just wanted to ensure that the readers were fully sure that they were reading about a purple countryside. And as he has long descriptive passages it makes sense that the purple-ness should be emphasised.

The writing style is somewhat dated, but I still found it an entertaining read. It is strangely full of emotion and romance for a classic western. I sort of expected them to be colder and more distant, emotion-wise, but if I recall the only other Grey I’ve read4 there was a similar passion described.

I will also say that the constant mention of the religion of the antagonists struck me as odd. Religious tolerance and all that being important, or at least, it is in the fiction I read. I know that in quite a bit of pop-culture religion is a quick signifier of the bad-guy, but usually not with Mormons. All I know about the Mormons I’ve learned from South Park, so really, I know nothing about them apart from the fact that they are big into genealogy. But although the baddies here are all Mormons so is one of the heroines, and while she does, in a way, turn her back on her religion, it isn’t her faith that she renounces, but the manner of its enforcing.

So it seems to me, at least, that Grey isn’t a fan of Mormons, but I think he may mean religion in general, or at least religion interfering in what should be secular matters.

Buy or borrow : 0140184406


  1. googling tells me 

  2. after reading the book obviously :) introductions should only ever be read *after* you’ve read the story 

  3. not an actual town here but her ranch, still  

  4. can’t remember the title, it was many many years ago 

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