26 November 2008

It's a Long Story

What's long is my story about this book. (From September 2002)

When I was very young, my grandfather Wedding [right] owned about 6 books. One of them was dictionary. Three of the others were Zane Grey novels. The other two didn't make a lasting impression.

I'd never read a Zane Grey novel until recently. It's kind of surprising since they made up half of Grandpa's library. As much as I fondly remembered the man who taught me to play checkers and didn't let me win, I didn't have a lot of faith in his literary tastes. I'd always assumed Grey's novels were rather like romance novels and I never pursued one. Well, they are like romance novels. But they're written for men as well as women.

Then I read Peace Like a River. Swede, the little sister (who, by the way, reminded me a whole lot of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) of the narrator, was an avid Zane Grey fan.

She was constantly reading one of his novels. Maybe that was a way for the author to keep her in the story, but at the same time keep her busy doing something. Anyway, I thought it was curious that this young character was such a fan of Zane Grey.

Flash forward to early September [2002]. I am driving toward Wyoming. From Minnesota, South Dakota is in the way.

Somewhere near a needed respite from driving is that well-advertised tourist trap, Wall Drug. It's rather like a shrine that those who traverse South Dakota have to stop and pay homage to. Maybe I've worshiped there too often, but the only room that held any interest was the book store. That's where I found a half-price copy of Forlorn River by Zane Grey.

The time was right to buy it, and a month or so later I read the book while listening to autumn arrive at Little Blake Lake (the wind and the rain were a little louder than the falling temperatures).

I began reading skeptically.

"Ben Ide named this lonely wandering stream Forlorn River because it was like his life."

The story is about a young, turn-of-the-last-century cowboy who turned down his father's offer of a farmer's future for life in the nearby wilderness catching, breaking, and selling wild horses. His leaving home broke his mother's heart and distressed his younger sister.

"He gloried in their (the horses') beauty, freedom, and self-sufficiency. He understood them. They were like eagles."

A sharp operator, Less Setter, has arrived in that Northern California area and finagled his way into the business dealings of Ben's father. Then, Ben's childhood sweetheart returns from Lawrence, Kansas where she was getting educated. Her father, too, has been taken in by the detestable, skirt-chasing con man.

Our hero, Ben, has two rather mysterious side kicks who are loyal because of Ben's
good deeds. There's a drought and there are cattle thieves. There's the beautiful wild stallion named California Red. There are some good guy cowhands, an upright sheriff, and a no good one. You get the idea.

It was written in 1927. Some of the language is archaic and sounds strange. But Zane Grey [left] knew how to tell a story! Several times during the day, as I read the book, I stopped as I realized how involved I'd gotten in the story. Not too much detail; not too little. No incredible motivations to overlook (well, maybe one). And good characterization. Most of the main characters are allowed some internal monologue to explain themselves and become more believable.

Now, it wasn't a totally satisfying tale.

The ending left a lot to be explained. The explanations were avoided by three murders and the rapid disappearance -- into the sunset -- of one of the main characters. Some of the transformations necessary for the ending to work happened incredibly quickly. But in its dated (75 year old) way, it reminded me of the stories of Tony Hillerman or Ellis Peters. Grey's luscious descriptions of the northern California mountains and high deserts remind me of Hillerman's meditations on the land of the Navajo. The way Grey lets his characters explain themselves also resembles Hillerman's technique. Self explanation is also a key to Brother Cadfael and other characters in Peters' books. And like Peters, Grey includes a good, though hopelessly dated, love story in Forlorn River. (In some ways Grey's lovers seem more ancient that the couples Brother Cadfael counseled and abetted in 12th century England.)

Zane Grey is a great story teller. He creates wonderful characters--even female characters. (No wonder Swede, from Peace Like a River, liked these stories.) Grey paints wonderful word pictures. I'll read others. Forlorn River is not one of the better-known novels, but it's a good place to start if you haven't read any Zane Grey. If you've only read the famous ones, here's one to move on to. It's the only one set in northern California.

Evidently, the movie is not very faithful to the book.

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