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Southwest Book Review: "Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane Grey

Title page and frontispiece, Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey, Harper and Brothers, 1912.

Did you know the great western writer Zane Grey started out as a dentist?

His father was a dentist. 

The old man sternly disapproved of writing as a profession, so Zane wrote secretly at night.

He was prolific!  Published over 90 books.  

Wonderfully descriptive books about fishing trips all over the world. 

Books about baseball—he played in the semi-pros. 

Books about his ancestors who settled Zanesville, Ohio.

And, of course, he wrote westerns.

They made him famous.

In the 1920s, Zane Grey put a face on the American West that captivated Hollywood directors.

Over half of his westerns feature imagery from the Mogollon Rim where he had a cabin.

This summer, I read Grey’s most renowned book, Riders of the Purple Sage

Honestly?  I didn’t expect to get hooked.

I mean, if you want a cowboy romance with breathtaking views of Monument Valley, why not just watch Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine?

But I was enthralled by Grey’s book.

The story’s set on the southern Utah border. 

Church elders try to bully a Mormon rancher, Jane Withersteen, into marrying and giving up her land. 

She’s championed by a good-hearted, brave but close-mouthed horseman, who, for most of the book suffers unrequited love for beautiful Jane.

Grey’s fictional world divides unambiguously between the noble and the ne’er do wells. 

But his prose is straightforward, the scenes, beautifully detailed. 

Characters, landscapes and actions blend together in a story that gains momentum page by page. 

This was a writer fully attuned to life and drama in the natural world, and I, for one, am glad he escaped the dentist’s office.

Just to give you a sample of the living detail in his scenes, here’s a description of a herd as cowboys try to corral it.

Just listen to the sound as these massive animals converge on a small open space.

"….the dust circles closed…. As the circle of sage lessened the steers began to bawl… there came a terrible thumping of heads and clicking of horns.  Bawling, climbing, coring, the great mass of steers on the inside wrestled in a crashing din, heaved and groaned under the pressure." 

While reading this book, I found myself homesick for the undeveloped west. 

You can get it in movies, but cinematic images are fleeting. 

You can’t live them for days the way you can in a good book.

Yes, the prose waxes purple at times; the romance may be a bit of a groaner for today’s tough reader.  

But there’s a reason so many readers treasure Zane Grey’s fiction. 

He links us to the past and a land that, for much of Arizona, has all but disappeared.

Ann Cummins is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. She has published stories in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Antioch Review, and elsewhere; her fiction has been anthologized in a variety of series including The Best American Short Stories, The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. A 2002 recipient of a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, she is the author of the short story collection Red Ant House, (Houghton Mifflin, spring, 2003) and the novel Yellowcake (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
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