Although many people know the title, not many have actually read the book. A number of years ago the Fruitville Readers chose to read Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Written in 1912, this first book of the Western genre has withstood the test of time and is as gripping today as it was 100 years ago. The story is of a young Mormon woman, Jane Withersteen, in a small town in 1871 southern Utah, who inherits the family ranch following the death of her father. She is determined to continue ranching, with help of her Gentile crew of riders, in spite of the wishes of the church elders. In particular the minister, Tull, wants to marry her and is
angered by her friendship with one of her riders, a Gentile, Bern Venters. In the opening pages, Tull and his men overpower Venters with the intention of whipping him, when out of the west, rides a lone cowboy, offering his services, a man of mystery with a checkered past…..
If that sounds melodramatic, that is the intent. As noted by one of the book discussion group
members, Grey never met an adjective he didn’t like. But if the reader remembers that this was truly the beginning of the
genre of Western fiction, Grey can be forgiven. Born in 1872 in Zanesville, OH, he grew up fishing, playing baseball, reading
dime novels and the classics and writing short stories. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he played baseball
and “half-heartedly” studied dentistry. He married, practiced dentistry for a while in New York City but eventually gave up
his practice, moved back to Pennsylvania to write, occasionally selling magazine articles on fishing, which did not produce
much income. On the verge of going back to dentistry, Grey met “Buffalo” Jones, who invited him to Arizona to his ranch to
observe the West first hand. Grey loved it and was able to capture his feelings for the wide open spaces in The Heritage of
the Desert , which enjoyed moderate success. Grey was able to incorporate the elements of adventure, suspense and mystery in his main character in his next book, Riders of the Purple Sage, which assured his place in American popular literature. Grey went on to write 58 westerns as well as 30 other books. His unpublished manuscripts and new Grey titles were published for years after his death.
The New York Times in February of 1912 calls the book “one of the best recent western novels, stirring in its rush of action and incident, vivid with local color, strong and human in its emotional interest.” It is full of “episodes of bravery, scoundrelism, chivalry, horsemanship and ready shooting” The New York World observed and even Booklist, a library trade journal, called it a “well-handled melodramatic story of hairsbreadth escapes.” The hyperbole helps create the background: The glorious sunlight filled the valley with purple fire. Before him, to left, to right, waving, rolling, sinking, rising, like low swells of a purple sea, stretched the sage. And builds the tension: What is the secret which has brought the stranger to Jane? Will Jane succeed, against the odds, in changing his killing ways? Who was the Masked Rider? The reader continues to turn the pages, and, at the end, wants more.