Riders of the Purple Sage is a novel written by Zane Grey and first published in 1912 by Harper & Brothers. Zane Grey was actually an American dentist as well as an author, and his adventure novels and Western novels are his most popular works. In all of his works, he heavily idealized the American frontier, yet it made for good reading in the Western genre. Not only were Grey’s works popular in print, they were reborn in films and television shows as they were produced widely during the twentieth century.
The novel is situated in an extremely specific time and place. The plot of the book takes place in 1871 and occurs during the early spring and summer of that year. This occurred after a large migration of Mormon settlers from the middle of Ohio, settlers who were persecuted in other parts of the country due to their belief in polygamy, took place for about ten years between 1846 and 1856. The belief in polygamy led to the central conflict in the story. These Mormons settled in the arid wasteland of southwestern Utah, near a deep spring and rapid streams, essential for their survival. After building a small, rickety town that relied on the hard work of a few rough-and-tumble men, the town soon grew and flourished, encompassing families and nearby people that moved there, and obtaining considerable wealth through farming, gold panning, and raising cattle herds. This wealth was also a major focus point of the tension and fighting that took place throughout the book. Although this entire book was a fantasy construction of the authors, there has been an ongoing debate in the validity of placing this story under the subdivision of historical fiction. Many aspects of the novel, including the migration of the Mormons to Utah as well as their way of life and the construction of the town, are historically accurate and represent significant research and knowledge on the part of the author.
During the time period of the creation of this novel, romanticized movies and books situated in the Western genre. Many of these entertainment productions made claims with little to no factual basis in the actual environment of the western United States, leading to a popular yet misunderstood view of the west among the American people. Although Riders of The Purple Sage does include portions of these romantic views, the novel also tries to offer a perspective of the West that is hardly seen beforehand, and to make people understand the intricate complexities of the region, with conflicts and issues just like any other part of the nation. Rather than creating a simple book that ended with a moral story like that of a fairy tale, the author wrote a lengthy story that twists and turns along various plot shifts and is so complex it actually shifts into to separate narratives towards the end.
The protagonist of Riders of the Purple Sage is a young woman named Jane Withersteen. She is part of her Mormon fundamentalist church, which means that most of the members are polygamous. One of the leaders of her church, Elder Tull, wants to marry Jane, but Jane doesn’t want to marry him. The Mormons use the word “Gentile” to describe a non-Mormon person, and it is used frequently in the book. Even Jane’s father wants her to marry Elder Tull and stay away from Gentiles, but Jane declares that she doesn’t want to marry him and that she doesn’t love him. This causes the other Mormons to persecute her, and she starts to have a bigger internal conflict about her religion. As the story progresses, Jane is helped by some of her friends, including Bern Venters and Lassiter, who is a famous gunman who targets Mormons. Jane’s adventure is not only exciting but also critical of the evil nature of her church and its leaders. The author uses Jane's experience with her religion to delve into the flaws of blind faith and the imperfections that come with a rigid religion, one that is not flexible enough to adapt with changing viewpoints. It is important to note that the author used this criticism of religion very tactfully, and criticized the Mormon religion rather than Catholicism, which was far more widespread in the United States at the time.