Friday, April 12, 2013

Purple Sage

I don’t want to turn this into a book blog, although as luck would have it, four of my last six posts have discussed the books of others. One post addressed a classic, another high-quality genre literature, and the third an author widely considered to have churned out the print equivalent of the kinds of films that used to end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or as candidates for the Golden Turkey Awards. But I had yet to encounter a book that might, depending on the reader’s point of view at any given moment, qualify as all three—that is, not until the Dead Writers Society (DWS), the same Goodreads group that adopted Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth as its March read, decided to tackle Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage for April.

A couple of things you need to know. First, Riders wasn’t the only book the DWS settled on for this month. It also chose Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which I last read years ago, and Frances Hodges Burnett’s The Secret Garden, another old favorite of mine. At the same time, Laurie R. King’s Virtual Book Club (also on Goodreads) picked her Justice Hall for its April read—and because I am interviewing Laurie in May for New Books in Historical Fiction and in connection with Garment of Shadows, which in a sense builds on Justice Hall—I wanted to re-read that one too. Not to mention Lenin’s Harem for my April interview. The reading schedule was getting a bit tight.

I finished Lenin’s Harem first and decided to get a head start on April (on that book, more next week). Riders of the Purple Sage was available free for Kindle (there’s my tech reference for this post!), so I started in on it. Two hours later, I was halfway through, and the next day I finished. The first Western I’ve ever read, and possibly the last.

But I still have no clue what to make of Zane Grey. What is one to do with an author who can describe people with the melodrama characteristic of my first example but surround it with passages of raw beauty like the second?

“Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go out in the sage?” asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was more than inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a gleam of righteousness. (4)

Here again was a sweep of purple sage, richer than upon the higher levels. The valley was miles long, several wide, and enclosed by unscalable walls. But it was the background of this valley that so forcibly struck him [Venters]. Across the sage flat rose a strange upflinging of yellow rocks. He could not tell which were close and which were distant. Scrawled mounds of stone, like mountain waves, seemed to roll up to steep bare slopes and towers…. All about him was ridgy roll of wind-smoothed, rain-washed rock. Not a tuft of grass or a bunch of sage colored the dull rust-yellow. He saw where, to the right, this uneven flow of stone ended in a blunt wall. Leftward, from the hollow that lay at his feet, mounted a gradual slow-swelling slope to a great height topped by leaning, cracked, and ruined crags. Not for some time did he grasp the wonder of that acclivity. It was no less than a mountainside, glistening in the sun like polished granite, with cedar trees springing as if by magic out of the denuded surface. Winds had swept it clear of weathered shale, and rains had washed it free of dust. Far up the curved slope its beautiful lines broke to meet the vertical rim wall, to lose its grace in a different order and color of rock, a stained yellow cliff of cracks and caves and seamed crags. And straight before Venters was a scene less striking but more significant to his keen survey. For beyond a mile of the bare, hummocky rock began the valley of sage and the mouths of canyons, one of which surely was another gateway into the pass. (21–22)

Is he Barbara Cartland, Edith Wharton, or somewhere in a bizarre category of his own?

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