Riders of the Purple Sage

by Zane Grey
Reviewed date: 2019 Apr 11
Rating: 3
335 pages
cover art

I'm not a great fan of Westerns, but Zane Grey is an excellent writer. Just really really good. I never got too invested in the characters, though, so the book didn't grip me as it might have.

Thought: Venters and Lassiter are both rather violent men. Isn't there any middle ground between ignoring a wrong and killing the man who wronged you?

Also: did Zane Grey have a personal grievance with Mormons, or were polygamist Mormon men just a convenient stereotypical villain?

1. Lassiter
The place: little Utah village of Cottonwoods.
The heroine: Miss Jane Withersteen.
The villains: Elder Tull and the Mormon Men.
The Hero: Lassiter, a rider.
Also starring: Venters, another rider.

Action: Lassiter rescues Venters and Jane from the Mormons.

2. Cottonwoods
Jane gets to know Lassiter. Venters leaves.

3. Amber Spring
Introducing: Oldring and the Rustlers.

Lassiter and Venters talk. Jane shows Lassiter the grave of Milly Erne.

"I know Mormons. I've seen their women's strange love en' patience en' sacrifice an' silence en' whet I call madness for their idea of God. An' over against that I've seen the tricks of men. They work hand in hand, all together, an' in the dark. No man can hold out against them, unless he takes to packin' guns. For Mormons are slow to kill. That's the only good I ever seen in their religion. Venters, take this from me, these Mormons ain't just right in their minds. Else could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a wife, an' call it duty?"

4. Deception Pass
Jane's Mormon riders quit en masse, leaving her cattle unwatched. Rustlers steal Jane's cattle. Venters thinks Elder Tull must be behind it.

5. The Masked Rider
Venters shoots two rustlers, kills one, wounds the second--who turns out to be a girl. He nurses her back to health. Venters tracks the rustlers and discovers their secret: an underground passage hidden behind a waterfall that leads into a hidden canyon.

6. The Mill-Wheel of Steers
Elder Tull and the Mormon men try to ruin Jane by stampeding her cattle, but Lassiter saves the herd.

7. The Daughter of Withersteen
Jane hires Lassiter to be her rider. Jane talks to her friend Mary Brandt, explaining that she refuses to marry Elder Tull because she does not love him.

Mary tells her to marry him anyway:

"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."

Jane tries to hire Gentile men as riders, but even they have been scared off by the Elder Tull and the Mormon men. Jane calls on Mrs. Larkin and her little girl Fay. Jane means to adopt Fay, if and when her ill mother dies.

8. Surprise Valley
The girl's name is Bess and she asks Venters not to return her to Oldring. Venters finds another secret valley, which he calls Surprise Valley, where he hides with Bess while she recuperates.

9. Silver Spruce and Aspens
Venters nurses the girl back to health.

10. Love
Venters explores Surprise Valley and finds abandoned cliff dwellings. Bess tells Venters that Oldring's cattle rustling is a front, and that he makes his real money panning for gold in the canyons. The Mormons paid Oldring to steal the red herd and return the herd at a later date. Bess remembers nothing before her life as a captive of Oldring. Venters and Bess fall in love.

11. Faith and Unfaith
Lassiter is Millie Erne's brother and he wants to avenge her by killing the Mormon man who lured her away from her home and husband. Jane's promise to the dying Millie was to protect that Mormon man, so she makes herself pretty in the hopes that Lassiter will see her as a woman and soften his hard, murderous ways.

Lassiter falls in love with Jane, and she discovers her feelings for Lassiter are becoming genuine. Lassiter points out to Jane that she is too faithful to her church--that some Mormon men are evil and need killing just like anybody else. And that she is unfaithful to herself by clinging blindly to her religion.

"You're faithful to your Bishop an' unfaithful to yourself. You're false to your womanhood an' true to your religion. But for a savin' innocence you'd have made yourself low an' vile—betrayin' yourself, betrayin' me—all to bind my hands an' keep me from snuffin' out Mormon life. It's your damned Mormon blindness."

"Is it vile—is it blind—is it only Mormonism to save human life? No, Lassiter, that's God's law, divine, universal for all Christians."

"The blindness I mean is blindness that keeps you from seein' the truth. I've known many good Mormons. But some are blacker than hell. You won't see that even when you know it. Else, why all this blind passion to save the life of that—that...."

Jane shut out the light, and the hands she held over her eyes trembled and quivered against her face.

Lassiter still wants to avenge his sister Millie Erne, and Jane wants to change Lassiter's violent ways to ensure that he will not kill any Mormons. (Her promise to the dying Millie being that she would let no one harm the Mormon man who brought her to Cottonwoods.)

Lassiter falls in love with Jane.

12. The Invisible Hand
The Mormon men tighten their grip on Jane: her household staff is forced to quit. She's watched day and night. They mean to break her and force her into a Mormon marriage.

13. Solitude and Storm
Venters and Bess live a slow, unhurried life. They appreciate the natural beauty and solitude of their hidden valley. They experience the frightful power of a thunderstorm. They are deeply in love.

14. West Wind
Venters wants to marry Bess but worries that she might be Oldring's wife.

15. Shadows on the Sage-Slope
Venters returns to Jane's to get supplies. He tells off Elder Tull, then returns to his hidden valley. Jane loses the white herd. Someone steals her prize horses.

16. Gold
Venters returns to Bess in the valley. Bess finds gold.

17. Wrangle's Race Run
Venters recovers Jane's horses from the rustlers. In the gun battle, the rustler die--including Jerry Card, Tull's right-hand henchman.

18. Oldring's Knell
Venters threatens Tull, returns Janes horses, and kills Oldring. Then he finds out, too late, that Bess is Oldring's daughter. Shock! Horror! (As if we didn't see this coming a mile away.)

19. Fay
Lassiter reveals to Jane how he spent 18 years tracking the Mormon proselyter who ruined his sister Millie, but explains that those years have changed him. He knows Bishop Dyer is the proselyter who ruined Millie, but he cannot help Millie and he no longer desires revenge. For the love of Jane he will lay down his guns.

Fay is kidnapped.

20. Lassiter's Way
Jane reveals that her late father sent Bishop Dyer out to proselytize, and that her father took Millie as a wife. Lassiter kills Dyer. Jane and Lassiter run away from Cottonwoods and never look back.

21. Black Star and Night
Venters and Bess leave Surprise Valley and meet Lassiter and Jane on the sage. Jane lets slip that Venters killed Oldring, and Bess is brokenhearted. She decides to leave Venters and return to Oldring's men.

Lassiter reveals that Bess is not Oldring's daughter. She's Millie Erne's daughter, stolen from her by Bishop Dyer and given to Oldring to raise as a rustler. Bess is Elizabeth Erne. So that makes it OK that Venters killed Oldring, apparently. Bess and Venters will leave Utah and make a new life out east.

Jane gives her race horses, Black Star and Night, to Venters and Bess for their escape out of Utah. Lassiter and Jane take the burros and head to Surprise Valley to make their new life.

22. Riders of the Purple Sage
Bess and Venters outrun Elder Tull and his riders. They have escaped. Tomorrow they will marry, then catch a stagecoach to Illinois and begin their new life. As the sun sets over the sage, they hear a distant rumbling: Balancing Rock has fallen and closed the way into Surprise Valley forever.

23. The Fall of Balancing Rock

"Life's hell out here. You think—or you used to think—that your religion made this life heaven. Mebbe them scales on your eyes has dropped now. ... 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."

Lassiter recovers little Fay after a gun battle. The three flee desperately from Elder Tull and his riders, who have tracked them after losing Venters and Bess. Lassiter brings them safely to Surprise Valley, then with Jane's permission tips Balancing Rock and closes the entrance to Surprise Valley forever.

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