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Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

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Dubbed the “most popular Western of all times” Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was the benchmark by which every other novel in the “Western” genre came to be judged. It portrays the archetypal lone gun slinger, out to wreak revenge for past wrongs who falls foul of the rich and powerful and finally rides away into the sunset, having rid the town of poisonous villains!

Riders of the Purple Sage is set in 1871, in a remote part of Utah. It opens with the young and lovely Jane Withersteen being victimized and harassed by her Mormon Church elders for associating with Gentiles or Non-Mormons. They are compelling her to marry one of their own sect, though Jane thinks otherwise. She has many good friends among non-Mormons and one of them, Bern Venters, is captured by a group of Mormons who set up a kangaroo court and condemn him to death. At this moment, a mysterious stranger, known only as Lassiter, appears and rescues Bern. He strikes fear into the hearts of the Mormons who are strangely subdued in his presence. His own hatred of their group is also slowly revealed. Jane herself is a wealthy rancher, whose herd is being surreptitiously rustled by unknown cattle thieves. Venters volunteers to help her and encounters a mysterious Masked Rider whose identity comes as a shock to everyone.

Most cowboy stories tend to follow a simple revenge plot with a little romance thrown in. However, Riders of the Purple Sage bucks this trend. It has memorable and well fleshed out characters, a many layered plot and interesting bits of social commentary. He wrote his first novel when he was just fifteen. It was an adventure story which enraged his father, a dentist, who felt that he was wasting his time with frivolous nonsense. While studying to become a dentist himself, Zane did odd jobs to supplement the family income after his father suffered financial losses. After marriage and a successful career, Zane wrote his first novel Betty Zane in 1903 and another in 1909. Both were unsuccessful till he published Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912.

After this there was no looking back. He began churning out a phenomenal three books a year and on his death in 1939 notched up an impressive body of work and led an extremely colorful personal life which could itself be the subject of a great novel!

As a classic Western, Riders of the Purple Sage is indeed the book that laid down the rules for this genre.

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