Wildfire has more heat than light

Wildfire is a horse story with people in it.

The setting — Utah wilderness bordering the Colorado River — becomes a part of the action.


Wildfire by Zane Grey
1917 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg EBook #2066. My grade: C+.

Wildfire getting started high in the mountains.
   Wildfire includes a real wild fire.

If Lucy Bostil loves horses, her father might be said to lust after them. John Bostil wants to own all the fast horses.

In the mountains, Lin Slone is trailing a wild stallion called Wildfire.

At last, Slone gets close enough to lasso the red stallion.

Exercising one of her father’s racehorses, Lucy finds Slone’s mount and Wildfire, both exhausted, and Slone himself badly battered.

The horses and Slone both fall for Lucy.

Lucy and Slone decide to have Lucy ride Wildfire in the big race against her father’s Sage King.

That sets up Lucy to be kidnapped and held for ransom while her kidnappers are pursued by horse thieves.

The fast-paced story is told by an omniscient narrator through an annoying series of “meanwhile back at the ranch” shifts.

There’s little character development: People don’t analyze events or reflect on behavior.

But few novelists can match Zane Grey’s physical descriptions. I found myself holding my breath as Slone and his horse slid and scrambled down and up the Grand Canyon’s walls.

Despite its flaws, Wildfire is breathtaking reading.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lone Star Ranger is too good for its ending

In his father’s day, a gun-fighter worried only about better gunfighters. Since then the Rangers have been organized to bring law and order to Texas.

Buck Duane will be the last of his gun-fighting family.


The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Gray

Project Gutenberg eBook #1027. 1915 bestseller #9. My grade: B-.


After killing a man in a gunfight, Buck flees in the Rio Grande country. He lives among a gang of outlaws long enough to make enemies, then wanders alone for some two years.

Captain MacNelly of the Texas Rangers hears enough good of Buck to offer him a pardon if he’ll work undercover for him.

Buck accepts.

His task is to find and destroy the gang whose mastermind, Cheseldine, no one appears to have ever seen.

In Fairdale, in the heart of cattle rustling country, Buck is captivated by the mayor’s lovely daughter.

Most readers will guess how the plot resolves itself.

Why Buck feels drawn to kill is the story’s real interest. Zane Grey makes Buck’s first gunfight into what we’d call a virtual reality experience today—and we’d seek a label warning it isn’t suitable for all audiences.

Grey suggests some possible answers, but doesn’t come to any conclusion. Instead, he ruins the story by promising Buck will stop killing because of “the faith and love and beauty of [a] noble woman.”

The Lone Star Ranger isn’t a great novel, but it deserves a better ending than that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Call of the Canyon Fails at Last Minute

The Call of the Canyon starts out looking the standard western romance. Then Zane Grey gets caught up in the lives of his characters. Instead of finding romance, the novel’s leading lady finds herself. Pigs

Thunderation.

Carley Burch, 26, a young woman of Jazz Age Manhattan is engaged to Glenn Kilborne. Gassed and shell-shocked in France, Glenn has gone to Arizona recover. The war affected something more than just Glenn’s body.

A year later, Carley pays Glenn a surprise visit, intending to bring him home. She finds him recovered physically, raising hogs, determined never to go back East.

Dangnabbit.

Carley is sure Glenn loves her, but he admires a local girl who returns his admiration. Carley decides to show Glenn she can take western hardships as uncomplainingly as Flo does.

As always, Grey’s scene descriptions are vivid and poetic. Grey does an unusually good job developing Carley’s character. He draws the lecherous Haze Ruff perfectly in a few lines. The other characters are flat.

Let me give you a hunch: If only Grey had learned from Carley’s experience, the novel could have been wonderful. On the verge of letting the novel go to its logical conclusion, Grey jerks back into comfort of familiar formulas.

Now, don’t that take the rag off the bush?

The Call of the Canyon
By Zane Grey
1924 bestselleter # 6
Project Gutenberg ebook #1881
My grade: B-

Photo credit: Pigs by Btenow

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Personal Favorites from 1923

The 1923 bestseller list doesn’t include any great books, but it includes a trio that I’d like in my personal hardback collection:  a light, but thoughtful romance and two very different thrillers.

The Enchanted April enchanted me

My favorite 1923 bestselling novel is The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It’s a sunny novel, full of descriptions that made me laugh out loud before reading  the lines aloud to savor their sounds.

Beyond that, though, the novel is wise and reflective. The four female leads discover their unhappiness is due more to their attitudes than to their circumstances.

A little vacation away from home, housework, husbands, and London’s rain, give them enough physical and mental rest that they can see their lives are really pretty good.

Running through the novel is the suggestion that life is to be enjoyed as it happens. Living in the past, as Mrs. Fisher is inclined to do, or loathing the present in anticipation of happiness in heaven as Rose does, are as unsatisfactory as Lottie’s and Lady Caroline’s teeth-gritting through every day.

If The Enchanted April sounds too feminine for you, my two other top picks from 1923 may be more appealing.

Wanderer of the Wasteland left me gasping

Zane Grey’s The Wanderer of the Wasteland pits man against Mother Nature and against his human nature. The plot is not a typical western either. Grey has some surprises that show real mastery of his craft.

The wasteland of the novel is Death Valley. It looks inhospitable when seen from the highway. Zane Grey takes readers there on foot, to experience a climate that’s not just hot, but poisonous. Grey’s descriptions left me gasping.

The Sea Hawk had unusual 16th century view

My third choice from the  1923 bestseller list is another thriller about hunk with a cranium: The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini. The Sea Hawk is an action thriller; it’s easily to imagine Errol Flynn playing Sir Oliver in a film version of the story.

The conflict in The Sea Hawk is man against man: Sir Oliver Tressilian will tackle anyone who stands in his way, whether they be Spanish,  Islamic, or his own half-brother.

Though the novel is very physical, Sabatini gives Sir Oliver brains and a developing moral sense that, along with the context of  state-sponsored piracy in the 16th century,  raise The Sea Hawk above the slash-and-burn level.

That wraps up my reading of the 1923 bestsellers.

Through the first week in September, I’m going to be picking up some novels I missed when they should have been reviewed a couple of years ago.

The Wanderer of the Wasteland a Thoughtful Thriller

Death Valley Zane Grey fans expecting an upright hero fighting bad guys may be disappointed by The Wanderer of the Wasteland. This is a harsh, relentless story about a young man growing prematurely old wandering the American desert in a vain attempt to escape  his guilty past. Readers willing to take the novel on its own terms will be rewarded with astute musings on the meaning of life mingled with heart-stopping action.

Adam Larey worships, his older brother, who hates him. After Guerd steals the girl Adam had slept with the previous night, the brothers quarrel. Adam shoots Guerd in a saloon full of witnesses.

Terrified he will be hung for the murder, Adam runs into the desert.

Days later, a prospecter named Dismukes finds Adam barely alive. Dismukes teaches Adam enough to survive—just—until he learns desert ways. Dismukes predicts Adam will find God in the desert.

Adam wanders in the Death Valley area for 14 years. Grey always treats nature more as a character than just as a setting. In Wanderer, nature is a malevolent force, symbolic of all that’s selfish in human nature contending against God for Adam’s allegiance.

Often, it looks as if Adam won’t last another day. Thirst, starvation, poisoned water, poison gas, and desperadoes work him over.

At 26, when he looks 40, Adam meets a girl he’d like to marry. He has to decide whether to follow his natural instincts or do what he knows is right.

Readers will gasp for breath right along with Adam right down to the last page when they gasp at Grey’s perfectly plausible, but totally unexpected, ending.

The Wanderer of the Wasteland
By Zane Grey
1923 bestseller # 8
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Photo Credit: Death Valley 2 by pr3vje

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

To the Last Man‘s Frantic Pace Blurs History

Rams feeding Zane Grey based his 1922 bestseller To the Last Man, on the “Pleasant Valley War,” a notorious feud in the Tonto Basin of Arizona.

Grey whips through the narrative scarcely giving readers time to turn the pages, which is probably just as well. Neither plot nor characterization can withstand much analysis.

Jean Isbel’s father summons him from Oregon to Pleasant Valley to champion the cattlemen’s rights against the sheepherders who are trying to force them out. Jean is on his way to the ranch when he falls in love at his first sight of Ellen Jorth. When she learns he’s son to her father’s worst enemy, Ellen hardens her heart against Jean.

Although the outline of the story is a predictable, romantic Western plot, the novel reveals as many explanations for the feud as there were participants. Some novelists could make such ambiguity seem natural, but here it feels like poor plot development.

Grey doesn’t do any better with his character development. He changes Ellen in a matter of months from a morose, self-absorbed teenager into a perceptive, rational woman. Maybe love could do that, but I find it unlikely.

To the Last Man will keep you turning pages, but it won’t create any lasting impression. I was reading the final chapter when I realized I’d read the novel before: It’s that forgettable.

To the Last Man
Zane Grey
Project Gutenberg ebook #2070
1922 Bestseller #9
My grade: B-

Photo credit: “Animal” by Darryl J Smith,Freelance Photographer, Ardlethan, NSW, Australia

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mysterious Rider appealingly predictable in western garb

The Mysterious Rider is a classic Zane Grey western, combining romance with adventure cushioned by the sights and sounds of the untrammeled frontier.

Bill Belllounds wants his son, Buster Jack, to marry the girl he raised after her family was killed in an Indian attack. She’ll comply to please her adopted father, but cowboy Wils Moore has touched her heart.

Belllounds must find hands willing to work with Jack, a bully and an abuser of horses. A stranger, who says his name is Bent Wade, answers the call. Wade has been wandering ever since his girl and their child disappeared in an Indian massacre.

You don’t need a map to know where the story goes from there. You know what the cowboy stands for and what he won’t stand for. By the code of the old west, the handsome young cowboy will get the girl, and the bad guys will get their comeuppance.

Grey’s predictability is part of his appeal. Readers enjoy an excursion through pristine wilderness led by a novelist who may be the best nature painter to ever dip his brush in ink—and to do it all from the comfort of their favorite chairs. No wonder Grey’s novels keep on selling year after year.

The Mysterious Rider
by Zane Grey
1921 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg EBook #13937

© 20111 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Man of the Forest Has Feminine Appeal

If Zane Grey is synonymous in your mind with plot-heavy cowboy stories, The Man of the Forest might change your thinking.

Taking shelter from a rain storm in the Arizona mountains, Milt Dale overhears outlaws plotting to kidnap Helen Reyner so their boss, Beasley, can get the Auchincloss ranch to which she is heir. Milt decides to save her. He doesn’t know she’s also being stalked by an Eastern scumbag named Riggs.

With the aid of a quartet of Mormons, Milt rescues Helen and her younger sister, Bo, and keep them safe in his forest hideaway until Auchincloss comes for them. Bo falls for a handsome Texas cowboy, and Helen falls for Milt.

The requisite number of narrow escapes, show-downs and shoot-’em-ups occur before the story reaches its happy ending.

Grey uses the story to explore the virtue  and destructiveness of a solitary life. Milt instructs Helen in the code of the lawless American frontier. He shows her the impulse for self-preservation in herself.

Helen teaches Milt that “work that does not help others is not a real man’s work.”  By the end of the novel,  Milt accepts Helen’s  civilized values and saves her happiness just as he saved her life.

The Man of the Forest
by Zane Grey
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919
383 pages
1920 #1 bestseller
Project Gutenberg Ebook No. 3457

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Another Saturday, another library book sale

The Sidney (NY) Memorial Library had a sale Saturday of books from a single donor. I was delighted to find the collection had a good sprinkling of vintage novels. Hardbacks were 50¢; I filled a bag with snow-day reading.

I picked up If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson, which topped the charts in 1922. I’m reading it now and finding it hard to put down. Another novel by the author, This Freedom, was #7 that year and #6 in 1923.

Other books that I carted home are:

A Lion in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley (1945) and Kings Row by Henry Bellamy (1941). After reading these to review here, I knew I wanted them  for my own collection. (Kings Row will be reviewed here in 2011.) They are both novels worth reading more than twice.

The Money Moon by Jeffrey Farnol published in 1911, the same year his novel The Broad Highway was the number 1 bestseller. He had other bestsellers:   The Amateur Gentleman (1913) and  The Definite Object (1917).

The Way of an Eagle by Ethel M. Dell (1911), a very popular romance writer who was sneered at by more literary authors. Her novels  The Hundredth Chance and  Greatheart made the bestseller lists in 1917 and 1918 respectively.

Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington (1916). Tarkington may be best remembered for The Magnificent Ambersons, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1918. I happen to think Claire Amber (1928) is a more interesting novel.

The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey (1918) is one of Grey’s many bestsellers, but not, I fear one of his better novels.

The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright (1909) is an early novel of the author who went on to best-sellers such as The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911 and 1912), Their Yesterdays (1912), The Eyes of the World (1914 #1), When a Man’s a Man (1916), The Re-Creation of Brian Kent (1919 & 1920), Helen of the Old House (1922), The Mine with the Iron Door (1923).

What about you? Found any great vintage novels in the used book bins lately?

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The U[tterly] P[reposterous] Trail

The U.P. Trail is a romantic tale of the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific. Zane Grey weaves all the traditional western cliches into his boy-meets-girl story.

Beautiful Allie Lee, headed east to a father she never knew, is the sole survivor of an Indian massacre . Handsome UP surveyor Warren Neale finds her. When she recovers from the trauma, they fall in love.

Henchmen of her  late mother’s gambler boyfriend, Durade, kidnap Allie.

Sioux capure her from the henchmen.

Allie escapes.

Meanwhile, Neale has lost his job after losing his temper with profiteer Allison Lee. Neale and his cowboy pard, Red, are degenerating in Benton, a temporary railroad town.

Allie and Neale are reunited.

Neale get his job back.

Durade gets Allie again.

She escapes.

They are reunited.

Allison Lee turns out to be  Allie’s father. He takes her east, decides he can’t stand her.

She escapes.

Allie and Neale are reunited.

I’ve may have left out a few “she escapes, they are reunited” bits, but you get the idea.

Grey has a keen eye for detail and I-was-there understanding of what happened, but the hackneyed plot and cardboard characters — the bad guys actually wear black hats — make this novel enjoyable only by the most enthusiastic Zane Grey fan.

The U.P. Trail
by Zane Grey
Grosset & Dunlap, 1918
409 pages
1918 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #4684
My grade: C-
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni