Paperback edition of Riders of the Purple Sage.
I recently finished reading Zane Grey’s 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage. I don’t normally read old romantic westerns, but Zane Grey tugs at the adventurous boy in me. Besides, I occasionally rebel and refuse to read the latest and best fiction on the best-seller lists. There are so many wonderful American storytellers and writers that have largely been forgotten and cast aside as new, and equally wonderful, authors march onto the literary stage.
So, having read Riders of the Purple Sage 20 some years ago, I took it up again hoping for a good story. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s true that the female characters have a combination of strength and off-putting submissiveness that I suppose I should expect in a Victorian-era romance novel. It did make me a little edgy, though. And for an age when cultural and religious tolerance are what we hope for, the strong anti-Morman sentiments in the book are unsettling. Beyond that there’s lots of hard riding, adventure, intrigue, mystery, and the surprising union of two parallel plots into one plot. Riders of the Purple Sage is well worth reading if you like western adventure and romance in a well-written story.
The heroes in Riders of the Purple Sage are classic American cowboys. It’s pretty much them against a vast battalion of bad guys. The actual riders from the title are mostly Morman cowboys who are supposed to be caring for the vast cattle herd belonging to Jane Withersteen, a Morman heiress. The riders turn out to be an unreliable and murderous lot who abandon the cattle to rustlers and worse. Our heroic cowboys and their gals struggle with this dark lot on two separate, and seemingly hopeless, fronts.
This lone cowboy against the bad guys theme got me thinking about another wonderful classic American western. Listen to this:
“Yippee-I-aye, yippee-I-o Ghost riders in the sky An old cowpoke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way When all at once a mighty bunch of red eyed cows he saw Plowin’ through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw Yippee-I-aye, yippee-I-o Ghost riders in the sky”
That’s the first verse to the 1948 song Ghost Riders in the Sky, written by Stan Jones. Since Jones wrote the tune its been recorded by more than 50 artists in a half dozen languages including Finnish. It’s easy to make fun of such a popular and well-known song. But, being a boy at heart, I love listening to Marty Robbins, Peggy Lee, or Johnny Cash belting out those four spooky-romantical verses.
“Brands were still on fire and their hoofs were made of steel Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky He saw the riders commin’ hard and he heard their mournful cry Yippee-I-aye, yippee-I-o Ghost riders in the sky”
Both of the heroic cowboy characters in Riders of the Purple Sage have done some bad things and they are in need of salvation. It seems like their alliance with the two women provides some hope for that. In Ghost Riders in the Sky the old cowpoke is warned by one of the condemned riders that he better change his ways. If he doesn’t, the rider warns him, he’ll have to chase that hellish herd through the sky for eternity. I don’t know what the old cowpoke has done wrong, or if he has a gal who can lead him to salvation, but I do hope he’ll work things out as the Devil’s herd passes him by on that dark and windy ridge.