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The Trail Driver by Zane Grey
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The Trail Driver (1935)

by Zane Grey

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Westerns are not among my usual genres but my mum enjoyed Zane Grey's novels so much when she was young that I've finally gotten around to giving one a try.

I find here some very good writing, in a vernacular that feels authentic and a voice I don't often hear. An enjoyable story, too; Grey has a wonderful grasp of his setting. No wonder he remains popular.

This book seems straddled between action fiction and classical literature. Grey is not only telling a tale, he is revealing glimpses of a perspective and way of life that had merits and flaws, and despite his clear endorsement of the highest ideals of Texas manhood, he has an awareness of subtleties and inequalities that are unexpected.

There is a comfortable racism and sexism built into the very foundation of these trail drivers' outlooks, and Grey to a large degree shares them with his characters. Yet he also points out that what drove the Indians to begin attacking settlers was the destruction of the buffalo herds and the threat to their way of life. If he had continued to develop this perspective later in the book, it would have fit well into modern literature.

Unfortunately the "redskins" become fierce and one-dimensional, a thing to fear and kill if possible, in order to save your hide. The single black in the book is only slightly more than a stereotype, himself, although a congenial one, an individual who never protests at friendly epithets like nigger and coon. Though to put that in context, the trail riders treat each other with similar friendly abuse most of the time.

The lead female belies the assertion that "no one ever seen an idee come oot of a pretty girl's haid" (p.153). A young orphan who has made her way disguised as a boy, she is sharp, fractious, determined, and extremely adept, and is responsible for the entire remuda - the herd of horses that supply the drivers along the thousands of miles of the Chisholm Trail.

A feature of this book that is unexpected is that the viewpoint character, Brite, a rich landowner and rugged cattleman who is making his third trip up the dangerous Chisholm Trail with a huge number of longhorns, is not king of the story. He hires a trail boss and defers to him. He takes the opinions of others into account, and when those others are more experienced than he is, they give the orders. He makes mistakes. He stumbles around when he's been on his horse too many hours. He is clearly the boss, clearly a man to respect, but he is not and doesn't desire to be a hero. If anything, he'd rather the hero settle down and not risk his life so much, even though Brite benefits from the risks the hero takes. Not the kind of leader we see in most fiction, and all the more appealing because of it.

This book holds value for me in a variety of ways. Paramount are its glimpse, however partial, into a part of my world that I had stopped thinking about when I rejected its easy stereotypes, and Grey's embracing and inspiring appreciation of the land and life upon it. But I also respect the good-hearted intent behind Grey's writing, the affection he has for his characters and their imperfections, and his attempts, however limited, to step beyond the accepted stereotypes of his day.

Glad I read this book. Thanks, Mum. ( )
  thesmellofbooks | Sep 1, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zane Greyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Anttila, WernerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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THAT hot summer day in June the Texas town of San Antonia was humming like a drowsy beehive.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Adam Brite set out to mount the biggest drive in the history of the famed Chisholm Trail. Forty-five hundred longhorns. At least ten trail-tough drivers. And enough bone-chilling danger in front of him to scare off the bravest men. Leading the drive was Pan Handle Smith - one of the most notorious outlaws in Texas. Brite expected a challenge on the storm-torn trail, but he never expected the hotbred of fueding, fighting and quick-shooting killing that threatened to keep the men from ever reaching the end of the long Chisholm Trail.… (more)

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