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Stormy riders or when I read my first western

December 17, 2013 14 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?

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