Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Zane Grey's Forlorn River and Nevada

First Edition Cover
Forlorn River and its sequel, Nevada, are my two favorite Zane Grey novels.

I find these novels brimming with Grey's loving descriptions of frontier wilderness. They also maintain Grey's tradition of simplifying characterization to maximize the epic qualities of all people trying to lead good lives in the face of evil.

I like to escape into these novels--and it's easier with these two novels in particular because the cultural biases present in Grey's lifetime are not as prevalent in these novels as in others, even though they are present.
  • Women are more sensitive, insightful, and intuitive than men. This attitude is really a slam against both men and women. In these novels, though, the women characters come across as very strong and the men as capable of love and loyalty.
  • "Injuns and Greasers": Minorities get minimized by Zane Grey, and that is true in this novel also, yet to a lesser degree. One minor character, "Modoc," has a significant role in the novel.
  • "Steely-eyed Mormon men": Hidden wives and bold-eyed Mormon men are given a pass-through in the novel as the protagonists pass through a Mormon town with their wagons.
Both novels follow the same plotline. Good people are conned by bad people, eventually to be saved by a good man who possesses a hidden, bad past--and a large, deadly pistol.

In Forlorn River (published in 1927), young Ben Ide is cast out by his rich dad, branded a wild horse hunter and possible rustler. Ide befriends a wounded man, whom he nicknames "Nevada." Ide does the same for "Modoc," an Indian he pulls out of a saloon. All three men form bonds of loyalty in their isolated state as they hunt wild horses in the California wilderness.

Meanwhile, as in all romances, there is romance. Ina Blaine comes back from college with a degree of sophistication and independence that her parents find disturbing. She hasn't forgotten her early values, though--or Ben. In addition to this, Hettie Ide, sixteen years old, finds the mysterious Nevada to be tall, dark, and handsome.

In Nevada (published in 1928), another romantic couple comes along, Marvie Blaine, and the daughter of backwoods rustlers, Rose Hatt. The primary action of this novel is in Arizona, where the forces of good and evil clash as honest ranchers are threatened by pernicious rustlers. All conflicts are resolved, and lovingkindness breaks out at the end of the novel--after the gunfight.

Zane Grey
In the biographical material at the end of Nevada (Thorndike edition), Loren Grey, Zane Grey's son, is quoted as saying, "There was so much unexpressed feeling that could not be entirely portrayed that, in later years, [Zane Grey] would weep when reading one of his own books."

The Thorndike edition biography also states, "Zane Grey was not a realistic writer, but rather one who charted the interiors of the soul through encounters with the wilderness."

The fact that those souls he charted were white, Anglo-Saxon souls wears thin about a hundred years after the writing. The cultural landscapes are always too lily white, even within the beautifully painted descriptions of the American frontier wilderness. Forlorn River and Nevada do not project so obviously the prejudices of the time--or rather do so within the context of main characters stepping beyond or around those stereotypes.

Mostly, though, I like how even a hundred years ago, in the end, goodness and happiness can prevail.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


  1. I vaguely recall reading Nevada as a young girl because Zane Grey was one of my Father's favorite authors and he shared his Westerns with me. Later we branched out into Max Brand and many others and along the way my love for the genre was firmly set, to this day I fondly recall and still love to read Louis Lamour's books even though have read them more than once over the years.
    Sadly Zane Grey lost me as a fan when I became old enough to understand just how racist his stories were, even while I stopped reading his work I never stopped enjoying the genre it introduced me to.

    1. You are right, Jackie. Zane Grey accepted standards that were common in his time and are unacceptable now. Like many books written in different times, I have to accept those limitations. They still are challenging to me, though, and I have to read such works in small doses.

  2. I really don't blame people for the way they were even fifty years ago. They were all products of their time, and I think it is unfair of us in the year 2013, to turn our noses up and away from the values and morals held by those that came before us. Do we want to be judged a hundred years from now? My God, what horrible things they would say about us. That's right, our morals today will look a lot different in a hundred years.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Consciousness is different at different times in history. I suppose our task as readers is to be big enough to keep the big picture in mind.