Every so often I like to pick up a book that I read as a young boy growing up. In this instance it was Zane Grey’s classic western Riders of the Purple Sage.
I remembered very little about the story other than the character known as Lassiter. His iconic image, a dreaded gunman dressed completely in black with two guns holstered at his side, is what stuck in my memory.
I’d totally forgotten that this was a western romance novel set in Utah telling the story of Jane Withersteen, a Mormon landowner who refuses to shun gentiles (non-Mormons) or enter into a loveless marriage with Elder Tull.
Written in 1912, the romantic characterizations and dialogue appear awkward and dated by today’s standards. But there is no denying that Grey’s descriptions of the landscape are stunning. He also captures the majesty, beauty, and might of horses. Some of his more enthralling passages describe them galloping the open range and the horsemanship of their riders.
Lassiter has come to Cottonwoods, Utah in search of his beloved sister’s grave when he happens upon a vigilante gathering of Mormons about to whip Bern Venters, the foreman at Withersteen ranch. Lassiter’s reputation as a deadly gunslinger drives them away, but sets in motion a series of events intended to ruin Jane Withersteen or force her into obeying the Mormon elders and bishop.
When Jane’s cattle herds are rustled, Bern Venters sets out to track down Rustler Oldring and the infamous “masked rider.” The pursuit results in the discovery of a hidden valley and a shootout with some of the rustlers. Bern wounds the masked rider only to discover that she’s only a teenage girl with a mysterious past. While nursing her back to health, the two fall in love.
Over time Lassiter also falls in love with Jane Withersteen, becoming her protector. He almost forswears the vengeance that brought him to Cottonwood, but the kidnapping of a young orphan girl whom both he and Jane have come to love reignites his hatred.
There are unforeseen plot twists before a final resolution of these two story lines, and the climatic ending is the reason why Riders of the Purple Sage remains one of the early westerns that excited a young boy’s imagination.
Does it hold up today? I admit skipping over passages that now seem quaint, but the book is over one hundred years old. My tastes in literature have changed as have those of most readers. Nonetheless, Riders of the Purple Sage is a timeless ode to the western and to an author that brought the Old West to life.