Review: Riders of the Purple Sage

Mysterious man in a black sombrero? Check. Stunning western landscape? Check. Mighty fine horses? Check. Stalwart woman trying to hold out on her own in hostile territory? Check. Cattle rustling? Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage has these features and more.

The tale follows two main parallel plotlines. At the center of the tale is Jane Withersteen, an independent and wealthy Mormon woman. She faces censure from her church for refusing to break off her friendship with Bern Venters, a Gentile. At the peak of the confrontation, a mysterious stranger—a gunfighter by the name of Lassiter—rides up and breaks up that showdown. Venters rides off and finds a place to hide out and encounters a beautiful strange woman with a past she refuses to speak of. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the pressure on Jane continues—Elder Tull wants her land and hand in marriage, and moreover, to break her spirit and bring her to her knees. Luckily, she has Lassiter on her side as well as the support of the people she has been charitable to along the way, but that may not be enough.

It’s been a few years since the last time I read any westerns, so I was expecting more “pew-pew” and less romance, so this was a bit of an unexpected turn of events. For a book with a blurb that made it sound like a gunfight was inevitable, much more time was dedicated to describing the stunning Utah landscape and the passive-aggressive tactics designed to bring Jane to her knees than outward violence. The two romantic subplots comprised a large portion of the story as well. Of course the men are noble and brave, and of course the women are good and pure and eventually need to be defended by their men, with everyone riding off into happily-ever-after sunsets after the various trials. This doesn’t sound too far off from some of their romance-novel counterparts, actually, which is probably a strong appeal of the genre.

One thing I had not been particularly anticipating was the strong anti-Mormon angle to the story. Our heroine, while herself a Mormon, is clearly cut of different cloth from her brethren, so it is OK to root for her. What she got out of her faith was what most religions hold up as an ideal—to give freely of charity and worship God. However, pretty much all the other Mormons hold more store by their political clout and are in on the plot to bring her down because of she represents someone refusing to bow to her elders; those who aren’t have been bullied into giving up their support, and in some cases, some of the women urge Jane to just bow her head and submit and not hold out for love because clearly a happy, monogamous marriage is too much for a Mormon woman to hope for. Oi vey. As villains, they were certainly heinous, but I find the broad strokes painting an entire religion a bit problematic.

For my other read this week (historical fiction), I have decided to read Sandra Dallas’s True Sisters, which also follows Mormons in the west, with what I hope is a more sympathetic brush.

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