Riders of the Purple Sage

Overview

A gentile sage-rider is about to be whipped by the Mormans to coerce the rich and beautiful Jane Withersteen to marry against her will. In desperation Jane whispers the prayer, "whence cometh my help!" Just then an unlikely hero, the infamous gunfighter, Lassiter routs the persecutors and is drawn into this conflict on the Utah-Arizona border.
The mysterious loner hires on to Jane's ranch. Through battles with gun slinging cattle-rustlers, cut-throats and the calculating ...

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Overview

A gentile sage-rider is about to be whipped by the Mormans to coerce the rich and beautiful Jane Withersteen to marry against her will. In desperation Jane whispers the prayer, "whence cometh my help!" Just then an unlikely hero, the infamous gunfighter, Lassiter routs the persecutors and is drawn into this conflict on the Utah-Arizona border.
The mysterious loner hires on to Jane's ranch. Through battles with gun slinging cattle-rustlers, cut-throats and the calculating Mormans, Lassiter unveils his tale of an endless search for a woman abducted long ago. Grey unfolds his story of seduction, secrecy, captivity and escape on the dust swept purple plains.
Judged by critics to be Zane Grey's best novel, Riders of the Purple Sage changed the western genre when it was first published in 1912. This novel shows the gritty as well the gallant in a more candid portrayal of the west than had come before.

Jane ran her cattle business and bossed the cowboys who rode the expanse of purple sage around her prosperous Utah ranch. Then she dared disobey the Mormons who ordered her to marry grim, brutal Elder Tull. Now her stock was being stampeded and her men disappearing. Then the mysterious gunslinger called Lassiter rode into town.

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Editorial Reviews

Brooklyn Eagle
A powerful work, exceedingly well written.
New York World
Episodes of bravery, scoundrelism, chivalry, horsemanship, and ready shooting...make up the body of his story.
New York Times Book Review
Poignant in its emotional qualities.
From the Publisher
“[Zane Grey is] an amazingly significant literary phenomenon.”—Hamlin Garland
Jane Tompkins
“For sheer emotional force; for the capacity to get and keep his readers, absolutely, in his grip; for the power to be-there is no other word for it-thrilling, few practitioners of narrative prose can equal Zane Grey. Sometimes reading him is like being caught in a waterfall or a flood; you feel at the mercy of a natural force that cannot be emanating entirely from the page.”
—Jane Tompkins
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400100620
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Series: Riders Series
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 5.54 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

The father of the western novel, Zane Grey (1872 - 1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He wrote 58 westerns and almost 30 other books. Over 130 films have been based on his work.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER I

LASSITER

A SHARP clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.

Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy and troubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message that held her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen who were coming to resent and attack her right to befriend a Gentile.

She wondered if the unrest and strife that had lately come to the little village of Cottonwoods was to involve her. And then she sighed, remembering that her father had founded this remotest border settlement of southern Utah and that he had left it to her. She owned all the ground and many of the cottages. Withersteen House was hers, and the great ranch, with its thousands of cattle, and the swiftest horses of the sage. To her belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdure and beauty to the village and made living possible on that wild purple upland waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befell Cottonwoods.

That year, 1871, had marked a change which had been gradually coming in the lives of the peace-loving Mormons of the border. Glaze - Stone Bridge - Sterling, villages to the north, had risen against the invasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of rustlers. There had been opposition to the one and fighting with the other. And now Cottonwoods had begun to wake and bestir itself and grow hard.

Jane prayed that the tranquillity and sweetness of her life would not be permanently disrupted. She meant to do so much more for her people than she had done. She wanted the sleepy quiet pastoral days to last always. Trouble between the Mormons and the Gentiles of the community would make her unhappy. She was Mormon-born, and she was a friend to poor and unfortunate Gentiles. She wished only to go on doing good and being happy. And she thought of what that great ranch meant to her. She loved it all - the grove of cotton-woods, the old stone house, the amber-tinted water, and the droves of shaggy, dusty horses and mustangs, the sleek, clean-limbed, blooded racers, and the browsing herds of cattle and the lean, sun-browned riders of the sage.

While she waited there she forgot the prospect of untoward change. The bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortingly suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the green alfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of cañons from which rose an up-flinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

The rapid beat of hoofs recalled Jane Withersteen to the question at hand. A group of riders cantered up the lane, dismounted, and threw their bridles. They were seven in number, and Tull, the leader, a tall, dark man, was an elder of Jane's church.

"Did you get my message?" he asked, curtly.

"Yes," replied Jane.

"I sent word I'd give that rider Venters half an hour to come down to the village. He didn't come."

"He knows nothing of it, " said Jane. "I didn't tell him. I've been waiting here for you."

"Where is Venters?"

"I left him in the courtyard."

"Here, Jerry," called Tull, turning to his men, "take the gang and fetch Venters out here if you have to rope him."

The dusty-booted and long-spurred riders clanked noisily into the grove of cottonwoods and disappeared in the shade.

"Elder Tull, what do you mean by this?" demanded Jane. "If you must arrest Venters you might have the courtesy to wait till he leaves my home. And if you do arrest him it will be adding insult to injury. It's absurd to accuse Venters of being mixed up in that shooting fray in the village last night. He was with me at the time. Besides, he let me take charge of his guns. You're only using this as a pretext. What do you mean to do to Venters?"

"I'll tell you presently," replied Tull. "But first tell me why you defend this worthless rider?"

"Worthless!" exclaimed Jane, indignantly. "He's nothing of the kind. He was the best rider I ever had. There's not a reason why I shouldn't champion him and every reason why I should. It's no little shame to me, Elder Tull, that through my friendship he has roused the enmity of my people and become an outcast. Besides, I owe him eternal gratitude for saving the life of little Fay."

"I've heard of your love for Fay Larkin and that you intend to adopt her. But - Jane Withersteen, the child is a Gentile!"

"Yes. But, Elder, I don't love the Mormon children any less because I love a Gentile child. I shall adopt Fay if her mother will give her to me."

"I'm not so much against that. You can give the child Mormon teaching," said Tull. "But I'm sick of seeing this fellow Venters hang around you. I'm going to put a stop to it. You've so much love to throw away on these beggars of Gentiles that I've an idea you might love Venters."

Tull spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be brooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had kindled a consuming fire.

"Maybe I do love him," said Jane. She felt both fear and anger stir her heart. "I'd never thought of that. Poor fellow! he certainly needs some one to love him."

"This'll be a bad day for Venters unless you deny that," returned Tull, grimly.

Tull's men appeared under the cottonwoods and led a young man out into the lane. His ragged clothes were those of an outcast. But he stood tall and straight, his wide shoulders flung back, with the muscles of his bound arms rippling and a blue flame of defiance in the gaze he bent on Tull.

For the first time Jane Withersteen felt Venters's real spirit. She wondered if she would love this splendid youth. Then her emotion cooled to the sobering sense of the issue at stake.

"Venters, will you leave Cottonwoods at once and forever?" asked Tull, tensely.

"Why?" rejoined the rider.

"Because I order it."

Venters laughed in cool disdain.

The red leaped to Tull's dark cheek.

"If you don't go it means your ruin," he said, sharply.

"Ruin!" exclaimed Venters, passionately. "Haven't you already ruined me? What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had horses and cattle of my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods. And now when I come into the village to see this woman you set your men on me. You hound me. You trail me as if I were a rustler. I've no more to lose - except my life."

"Will you leave Utah?"

"Oh! I know," went on Venters, tauntingly, "it galls you, the idea of beautiful Jane Withersteen being friendly to a poor Gentile. You want her all yourself. You're a wiving Mormon. You have use for her - and Withersteen House and Amber Spring and seven thousand head of cattle!"

Tull's bard jaw protruded, and rioting blood corded the veins of his neck.

"Once more. Will you go?"

"No!"

"Then I'll have you whipped within an inch of your life," replied Tull, harshly. "I'll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come back you'll get worse."

Venters's agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed to gray.

Jane impulsively stepped forward. "Oh! Elder Tull!" she cried. "You won't do that!"

Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.

"That'll do from you. Understand, you'll not be allowed to hold this boy to a friendship that's offensive to your Bishop. Jane Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven't yet come to see the place of Mormon women. We've reasoned with you, borne with you. We've patiently waited. "We've let you have your fling, which is more than I ever saw granted to a Morman woman. But you haven't come to your senses. Now, once for all, you can't have any further friendship with Venters. He's going to be whipped, and he's got to leave Utah!"

"Oh! Don't whip him! It would be dastardly!" implored Jane, with slow certainty of her failing courage.

Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood - the power of her creed.

"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.

"I'll take it here - if I must," said Venters. "But by God! - Tull, you'd better kill me outright. That'll be a dear whipping for you and your praying Mormons. You'll make me another Lassiter!"

The strange glow, the austere light which radiated from Tull's face, might have been a holy joy at the spiritual conception of exalted duty. But there was something more in him, barely hidden, a something personal and sinister, a deep of himself, an engulfing abyss. As his religious mood was fanatical and inexorable, so would his physical hate be merciless.

"Elder, I - I repent my words," Jane faltered. The religion in her, the long habit of obedience, of humility, as well as agony of fear, spoke in her voice. "Spare the boy!" she whispered.

"You can't save him now," replied Tull, stridently.
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Introduction

Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912, has been called the most popular western novel of all time. Zane Grey's sixth book and first bestseller, Riders is set in the mysterious canyon country of southern Utah during the turbulent 1870s and portrays a conflict between Mormon and non-Mormon settlers over the possession of land. The novel questions the right of a religion to tyrannize its followers and deprive them of freedom in the name of good. The rugged landscape the novel inhabits is more than a backdrop for the action. Villains and heroes both try to use the stone labyrinth to their advantage, but it is the landscape's power and majesty that dictate the final result. What is both shocking and fascinating about Riders, when read today, is the negative characterization of the Mormon religion. Even in 1912, the original publisher had misgivings about bringing out a book so bluntly negative about the Mormon faith. Also intriguing is the fact that Zane Grey wrote two other books in the same period that contained positive portrayals of Mormonism.

Zane Grey was larger than life. As Jane Tompkins wrote in her book West of Everything; The Inner Life of Westerns, for Grey, "Writing was not just a matter of representing deeds of valour, but of performing them." When he was not writing, he was hunting and fishing. His explorations, often on horseback with pack trains, took him into some of the most remote locations in America. This was an era when writers felt they needed to inspire their prose with first-hand, even high-risk experiences, and Grey was a model of the approach. All of America watched to see what he would do and write aboutnext.

Through the 1920s, Zane Grey's books were consistently on American bestsellers lists. At the root of his success was his absolute belief that American nostalgia for the frontier, and for a return to bygone values, was more powerful than the enticements of urban stories about an increasingly industrialized America. This choice meant that the endorsement of the literary elite would not come his way within his lifetime, but a much larger success and a deeper reverence from ordinary readers did. It is estimated that over one hundred and thirty million copies of Zane Grey's books have been sold worldwide.

Zane Grey didn't begin his writing career until he was almost thirty. Born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1872, he was given the name Pearl Zane Gray. His father, a dentist, urged his son to follow him into the profession, but Zane was more interested in sport and the outdoors. A promising pitcher, he was once booed in victory for throwing too many curve balls. He earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and did in fact use the opportunity to study dentistry. He began his dentist's practice in New York City in 1896, but by 1902 was tired of it. It was then he began to write. His first publication was a fishing story called "A Day on the Delaware." The next project, a trilogy of historical novels rooted in his mother's family history in Ohio, began with the self-published Betty Zane in 1903. He had by then changed his name from Pearl Zane Gray to Zane Grey.

The turning point in Zane Grey's career coincided with his marriage to Lina Elise "Dolly" Roth in 1906. Their honeymoon trip to California included a stop at the Grand Canyon and a pack trip to the canyon's depths. This was Grey's first glimpse of the arid and sculpted country that would be the lasting inspiration for his western novels.

Grey returned to Arizona a year later, after having met colorful westerner Buffalo Jones in New York City. Jones invited Grey to visit his remote Arizona ranch, where he was crossbreeding buffalo with domestic cattle. The group rendezvoused in Flagstaff, where Grey was introduced to the impressive Mormon pioneer Jim Emett and several Mormon cowboys and wild horse trackers. Grey was the only non-Mormon in the party, so the 180-mile journey represented a chance to learn about that mysterious religion, as well as the landscape and lore of the country. One of many highlights for Grey was taking part in Buffalo Jones's specialty of treeing and roping mountain lions. The night the two had met in New York, a crowd Jones was lecturing had hooted him down for saying he could capture live cougars with a rope. The New Yorkers didn't believe it. Part of Grey's purpose in Arizona was to witness the practice, then write about it, so that Jones could be vindicated.

Though Zane Grey would return to northern Arizona several times, it was his nature to be most impressed by a place on first immersion. His 1907 exploring party crossed the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry, which Jim Emett operated, then traveled the country north of the Grand Canyon. This journey through the high desert known as the Arizona Strip, and another pack trip with guide Al Doyle into the Navajo country in 1911, provided the images, characters, and ideas for many books to come.

Four of Zane Grey's early books portrayed Mormons in lead roles. The Last of the Plainsmen (1908) was the promised nonfiction portrayal of his 1907 journey with Buffalo Jones and Jim Emett. Grey dove back into that material immediately and wrote the novel The Heritage of the Desert (1910). Heritage featured a thinly veiled Jim Emett as the noble Mormon August Naab. Two years later, Grey was back with a second Mormon novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, but the tone had entirely changed. Now Mormons were the villains. A third book, The Rainbow Trail, written in 1915, and set in 1889, describes a Mormonism changed by opposition and the passing of a hardened generation. Grey's non-Mormon protagonist in this sequel is willing to look at practices like polygamy with a more tolerant view.

Some have suggested that the three novels represent changes in Grey's attitude toward Mormons during the period he was writing about them. When he wrote The Heritage of the Desert, he was trying to present the general public with a view of Mormonism that would show the religion's good points and dampen anti-Mormon sentiment. But in the process of learning about the religion, Grey himself found things he did not like, and these found expression in Riders of the Purple Sage. In the third novel, The Rainbow Trail, Grey's character Shefford rationalizes and forgives some of the traits of Mormonism that Lassiter, the hero of Riders, had detested.

Another perspective on this shift from a positive portrayal of Mormonism in Heritage to a negative portrayal in Riders is that it had to do with marketing. A letter from Grey to a Mormon guide in Arizona attempts to excuse the anti-Mormon content in Riders by pointing out how much worse Mormons were being treated in other publications. Grey also suggested to this Mormon friend that another positive portrayal of Mormons, in such an anti-Mormon climate, could cost him money. The Heritage of the Desert had been a breakthrough for Grey in the sense that a prestigious publisher, Harper and Brothers, had published it. Now he needed a financial success to forever answer the question of whether writing could support his family. The choice of an anti-Mormon message in Riders appealed to one million readers in the book's first year, and Zane Grey's career was airborne.

In fashioning his Mormon villains for Riders and deciding on their evil practices, it is likely that Zane Grey was influenced by stories about the Danites, a Mormon defense organization formed in response to violent acts against Mormons in Missouri. Mormon history states that the church's founder Joseph Smith disbanded the Danites as soon as he heard of their activities. A popular belief among non-Mormons was that the Danites were still active. In 1838, at the peak of the conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri, the state governor issued an "Extermination Order" against Mormons. The result was the Church's removal to Illinois. That same year, 1839, Joseph Smith introduced the contentious practice of polygamy. Many in the general public already hated Mormons for their deviation from standard Christianity. Now they seized upon polygamy as more just cause for their hatred.

In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother were assassinated by a mob in an Illinois jail. Brigham Young, Smith's successor, led most of the Mormons to Salt Lake in 1846. The most grisly instance of Mormons taking revenge for all they had endured occurred in Utah in 1857 and is known as "The Mountain Meadows Massacre." Though many conflicting versions of this story exist, it is believed that Mormons and Paiute Indians killed all but seventeen of a caravan of 137 California-bound Missourians.

Given the need for a powerful villain to increase the suspense in any western action novel, it probably made sense to Zane Grey to portray Mormon goodness in one book, and Mormon tyranny in another, rather than mix the two. He did not go against his own beliefs in either book, but emphasized one side of what he felt about Mormonism in one, then shifted to the opposite pole of his feelings in the other. It is well known that Zane Grey disliked fanaticism, in any religion, and his goal in Riders was probably to repudiate tyrannical practices in all religions, not just Mormonism.

Each of the main characters in Riders represents a moral position, and the plot is an argument among those positions. Jane Withersteen, a Mormon, is kind and good, and believes that all violence is wrong. Her male counterpart is the action hero, Lassiter, who is portrayed as without religion. He believes in the power of guns and the survival of the fittest, and in the beginning of the book he is fueled only by a desire for revenge. Elder Tull, the villain, is pure fanatical tyranny. He uses the tenets of Mormonism as an excuse for greed and violence: for coveting Jane and her property and for unmotivated attacks against gentiles. Throughout the novel, the attraction between Jane and Lassiter is obvious, but belief keeps them apart. Finally, when an orphaned child in their care becomes "a religion" to Lassiter, the gunman mellows. While Jane is pulled and driven away from Mormonism, Lassiter is drawn towards an instinctual pantheism, where God exists in children and in nature. The suggestion is that Jane and Lassiter will form a union beyond the novel's close.

The landscape of southern Utah is presented as haunting, beautiful, frightening, and labyrinthine. The labyrinth can be a place where you lose yourself or where you find protection from your enemies. A man with the power to survive and the sense to appreciate where he is might even find Eden there. In Riders, a giant stone called Balancing Rock has the capacity to fall and permanently block the wild world from the tame. Though Zane Grey lived in California and was drawn to the excitement of Hollywood, he had a competing yen for life in an undisturbed wilderness. It also bothered him that so many wild places he had included in his books had become objects of curiosity on their way to being tourist destinations, partly because of the notoriety he had given them. Balancing Rock is a powerful symbol of yearning to escape irreversibly into nature, while leaving society behind.

Riders of the Purple Sage has been adapted for film many times, the first version made by Fox in 1918. Grey subsequently started his own film company, which he sold to Jesse L. Laskey, the founder of Paramount Studios. Laskey's Paramount turned many of Zane Grey's novels into movies, and Grey was very satisfied with the respect shown to both him and his books in the process. But Paramount could not film Riders of the Purple Sage because Fox retained its film rights.

Fox had two things Grey disliked: an adherence to the star system and a tendency to change the plots of books they adapted for screen. Fox remade Riders in 1925, with Tom Mix in the starring role of Lassiter, who was now a Texas ranger seeking revenge on a lawyer. The Mormon plot was gone. In the Depression years, Fox made Riders a third time with their marquee star, George O'Brien, in the Lassiter role. The fourth remake was released in 1941, after Grey's death, with George Montgomery as Lassiter. The most recent motion-picture version of Riders aired on the Turner Network in 1997, starring Amy Madigan and Ed Harris. In this version, the religious zealotry of the villains is back.

Zane Grey died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1939. After his death, he remained a legendary figure, but a shift in literary taste toward urbanism, gritty realism, and ambivalent values made the romantic vision in his novels seem dated. Applauded in his day for his efforts to achieve accuracy, Grey came in for criticism on that ground as well. Blake Allmendinger, an American academic and writer from a Colorado ranch background, has pointed out that, except for showy moments of cowboy work such as bronco-busting, there is little in Zane Grey's novels about what a normal cowboy did on an average day.

Other critics and historians of American literature, such as Duke University professor and author Jane Tompkins, have re-examined the Zane Grey opus and found in it an important development in North American letters. Whether or not Zane Grey meets current literary tastes, he did create a genre, more or less by himself. Owen Wister's The Virginian is recognized as the first western, but one novel does not a genre make. By the time Zane Grey had written his fifty-six westerns the trail was tramped deep in the American psyche, for others, such as Louis L'Amour, to follow. One wonders if the literary stars of western writing today, authors like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, would have directed their energies and talents toward the western if Zane Grey had not blazed the trail.

Since its first publication in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage has never been out of print. There is also an enduring quality in the Zane Grey style. Jane Tompkins describes it this way:
For sheer emotional force; for the capacity to get and keep his readers, absolutely, in his grip; for the power to be-there is no other word for it-thrilling, few practitioners of narrative prose can equal Grey. Sometimes reading him is like being caught in a waterfall or a flood; you feel at the mercy of a natural force that cannot be emanating entirely from the page.
Endurance was a quality that Zane Grey greatly admired, and one would imagine that the uninterrupted longevity of his best-loved book would please him greatly.

Fred Stenson is the author of thirteen books and two historical fictions: The Trade, an award-winning account of the Western fur trade, and Lightning, a 2003 novel about the American and Canadian open range. He is the director of the Wired Writing Studio at The Banff Center in Alberta, Canada.
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Foreword

1. 1. How does blindness, both literal and metaphorical, function in the novel?

2. 2. What is the role of the setting and landscape?

3. 3. What is the significance of the many references to the “unseen hand”?

4. 4. How is the West represented in the novel?

5. 5. Literary critic Jane Tompkins has argued that “metamorphosis is what the novel strives for and enacts at every level. You can see it not only in the relation between character and landscape, but also in the constant boundary-crossing that takes place within and between characters.” Discuss.

6. 6. Whose worldview wins and why?

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Reading Group Guide

Told by a master storyteller who, according to critic Russell Nye, “combined adventure, action, violence, crisis, conflict, sentimentalism, and sex in an extremely shrewd mixture,” Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic of the Western genre. It is the story of Lassiter, a gunslinging avenger in black, who shows up in a remote Utah town just in time to save the young and beautiful rancher Jane Withersteen from having to marry a Mormon elder against her will. Lassiter is on his own quest, one that ends when he discovers a secret grave on Jane’s grounds. “[Zane Grey’s] popularity was neither accidental nor undeserved,” wrote Nye. “Few popular novelists have possessed such a grasp of what the public wanted and few have developed Grey’s skill at supplying it.”
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