Above a collection of house plants on the built-in shelves in the paneled and enclosed back porch of my paternal grandmother's house were dozens of old Western novels, including several by Zane Grey. I can not report that I read them as a boy. I was not a dedicated reader at the time, being more prone to watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Mission Impossible. So I grew up with some mistaken assumptions about Zane Grey's books.
With a need for cheap and easily-packed reading for our vacation to Australia and New Zealand, I picked up a paperback copy of Riders of the Purple Sage. The cover proclaimed it to be "The Only Uncut, Uncensored Edition." I thought I would just be getting an action-packed cowboy story. Instead I found I had a fairly thick book reminiscent of novels by James Fenimore Cooper. Like the author of The Last of the Mohicans, Zane Grey loved to set scenes in great detail before describing action. When characters cross wide sage-covered plains and climb up mountains in Utah, readers go with them step by step, fording streams, listening to the wind, noting dust or smoke on the horizon, and always watching for wrestlers and gun-toting Mormons.
If Riders of the Purple Sage is a reliable witness, Zane Grey disliked Mormonism. In this restored edition are several sympathetically portrayed Mormons, but most of the followers of Utah's dominant religion are in league to keep nonbelievers from owning property and settling in their communities. They tolerate Gentiles when they need laborers, but they pay badly and confine the drifters who wander into their towns. The Mormon elders also brainwash their women. According to editor Jon Tuska, Grey's publishers sanitized the text by removing many passages dealing with Mormonism in early editions of the novel.
I was also surprised by all of the romantic elements in Riders of the Purple Sage. (Spoiler alert!) Two unlikely couples are brought together by the events of the story. When the gunman known as Lassiter is not heading off a stampede or tracking stolen cattle, he is talking his reluctance to love with Jane Withersteen, the heiress to a ranching empire. When the cowhand Berne Venters is not climbing into secret canyons or shooting wrestlers, he is nursing a young woman that he regrets having shot. The characters all seem to discuss relationships as though they are sensitive to the emotions of the opposite sex.
Riders of the Purple Sage is a curious work, easy to criticize for its one-dimensional characters and casual acceptance of violence (gun them down before they come after you), important as evidence of historical conflicts and attitudes. It also has an intriguing story with plot twists that surprise readers who avoid reading the Foreword until after reading the novel.
Grey, Zane. Riders of the Purple Sage. Leisure Books, 2006. ISBN 0843956011