I thought I had read this before, but now I don't think I ever had. Which is silly, because it's one of the most famous western books. I'm glad I finally got to it!
Jane Withersteen is a wealthy Mormon woman whose expansive ranch is the biggest spread anywhere near the Utah town of Cottonwoods. She refuses to stop seeing a "gentile" named Bern Venters and marry a Mormon, and the leaders of the town decide to punish her and Venters for this. Into the fray steps a stranger named Lassiter whose reputation as a Mormon-hater and -killer is known throughout Utah. He saves Venters' life, then champions Jane Withersteen through everything her enemies can devise as they try to force her into submission.
This is not exactly an anti-Mormon book -- while the antagonists are all Mormons and use their religion as the reason behind their actions, Jane Withersteen is also a Mormon and relies on her faith to see her through. I don't know a great deal about Mormonism, just what I learned in catechism class years ago, and what I've picked up here and there since then. So I don't know how accurate any of this is to the history of Utah and such. But Mormonism is a big part of the book, and mostly it's not shown in a good light, but as an excuse to basically be thieves and murderers. Just so you know.
This book hit a lot of sweet spots for me: secret identities, vengeance and avengers, lonesome heroes, spirited heroines, love that crosses boundaries, and (of course) cowboys and the Old West. It also has some spectacular descriptions -- Grey creates a vivid world that's almost too fantastic to believe, full of vibrant colors and amazing landscapes. Nothing is dull or flat or ordinary here -- even the landscape is epic.
I think I could be good friend with Jane Withersteen. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator tells us that she "wished only to go on doing good and being happy" (p. 4). That reminds me a lot of me. She's also stubborn and secretive, but kind and generous. I like her a lot.
And Lassiter -- my goodness, he's precisely the sort of hero I love. A loner with a mission of vengeance, dressed all in black, with a lightning draw and a deadly aim, but with "a quaint grace and courtesy that came to him in rare moments" (p. 245). Yum, yum, yum.
So yeah, very glad I picked this up at the library and have now read it at long last. I suspect this will become one I reread now and then.
A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage (p. 3).
Particularly Good Bits:
Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley -- beautiful now as never before -- mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the quivering, golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams of fire (p. 157-158).
So, with his passion to kill still keen and unabated, Venters lived out that ride, and drank a rider's sage-sweet cup of wildness to the dregs (p. 203).
If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for violence and some language.