The Light of Western Stars
by Zane Grey
Sunday, June 11, 2023
At some random point in the night several months ago I found myself browsing ebooks at the library via Libby’s random ordering and, I have no idea why, this jumped out at me as the thing to read to put myself to sleep. I liked the title. I’d never read a Western. I’d heard of the author but had no idea if he had a bad or a good reputation. I guess I think anything still going over a century after it was published is at least worth a look. I fancied something different.
I was ready to find, at the very least, sexism and racism. The central character here is Madeline Hammond, who goes out west to visit her brother and ends up staying, and I think because of this I didn’t find the sexism in the book too overwhelming. I liked having a strong female character and though many of the other women in the book were shown to be ‘weak’ in one way or other most of them had a moment to shine. If anything it was the male characters who seemed to be a bit of an amorphous mass of cowboys that I struggled to remember which was which. And I was expecting “cowboys and indians” but this was “cowboys and mexicans” and a whole slew of racist stereotypes and that bit of the plot didn’t really grab me other than to make me roll my eyes a lot.
I wasn’t expecting temperance to be such a central theme of the book, which just shows how little I know about the prohibition movement in the US, now I’ve looked into that background a bit more it absolutely makes sense that a book aimed at male readers in 1914 has a large part of its plot about a drunkard redeeming himself. Oh, and the other defining feature of the book for me is terrible accents. I don’t think it’s any worse than any other genre of the era for that though! It always amuses me that the working class in mysteries are portrayed with these literal interpretations of the sounds of their speech but the upper classes don’t get the idiosyncrasies of their speech similarly treated - I mean it would make books unreadable if they did, and I’m glad we don’t see much of this device any more. But in this book I have no idea what accent is being evoked by making a character say “shore” rather than “sure” - homonyms in my English accent - I spent a while wondering if this was just an archaic spelling (which you find in even fairly recent books, for example, I noticed Anthony Powell uses “connexion” where we’ve since standardised on “connection”) but it’s spelt normally when said by every other character.
Though it’s taken me several months to read the book I did enjoy most of it. There’s some great descriptions of the landscape and riding through it. The plot is as obvious as any romance novel, it starts with girl comes to town and drunkard tries to marry her before she’s even got away from the train station, and I don’t need to spoil anything because that’s page 1 and you already know where that storyline is headed. I had a lot of issues towards the end of the book with how that story line resolved itself though. There was needless cruelty and disregard for consent. The ending rather spoilt the book in fact, but it’s of its time I suppose.
I probably won’t read a western again any time soon, if at all, but I’m glad I persevered with this one and found out what they were all about.