The books of Zane Grey (real name Pearl Zane Grey, 1872-1939) are considered to be a cornerstone of western fiction. His best-selling novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) may be the most popular western of all time, a genre-defining work that has been adapted to film five times. As a longtime fan of westerns, I often found Grey as being an antiquated voice with whom I couldn't connect. However, after many years of passing by his books on the shelves, I decided to try his very first novel, Betty Zane. It was originally published in 1903 and later reprinted for modern audiences in 1974 as The Last Ranger.
Betty Zane is the author's attempt to organize and recount his own family's history. Grey's great-grandfather, Colonel Ebenezer Zane, is memorialized in Wheeling, WV for his imperishable defense of Fort Henry on September 11, 1782. The novel, while not exactly a western tale, describes the rugged frontier life of early pioneers. Their labors, triumphs and intestinal fortitude is described in the days leading up to that violent, awe-inspiring event in American history. The novel is a fantastic historical presentation that can be enjoyed as a stand-alone title, but the characters continue in Grey's sequels, The Spirit of the Border (1906) and The Last Trail (1909). These books make up what is often referred to as Grey's Frontier Trilogy or Ohio River Valley Trilogy.
Despite it's original title of Betty Zane, the novel features an assortment of characters who reside at Fort Henry, a border settlement on the eastern side of the Ohio River. On the western side lies numerous Native American tribes and their French allies. Ebenezer Zane has four brothers residing at the fort with him, Silas, Andrew, Jonathan and Isaac, as well as one sister, Betty. The book also introduces the McColloch and Wetzel family as well as a love interest for Betty in Alfred Clarke. All of these characters form the fabric of this settler’s tale. The reader bears witness to them defending the fort, attacking nearby tribes or - in Isaac's case - escaping from the Wyandot tribe.
Perhaps my favorite character in this book, and probably the entire trilogy, is Lew Wetzel. In the introduction to Spirit of the Border, the author candidly describes the character:
“He was never a pioneer but always a hunter after Indians. When not on the track of the savage foe, he was in the settlement with his keen eye and ear always alert for signs of the enemy.”
The author's astute perception of Wetzel as a hunter is important. While the real-life characters that make up Betty Zane are resilient, Wetzel is a different breed. In any violent vigilante or Syndicate-themed novel of the 60s, 70s or 80s, one would be hard pressed to find a more barbaric, ruthless aggressor than Lew Wetzel. His hardened soul binds his fate as a man who knows no other way. He repeatedly turns away Betty's advances and explains that he only exists as a forest predator, never to be domesticated or ruled. The characterization is emphasized in the book's closing pages as Wetzel rips off his hunting shirt and cleaves his enemy to death with an axe. To quote Grey, “...he had forgotten that he was defending the Fort with its women and its children. He was fighting because he loved to kill.”
Zane Grey was learning to write a novel and was probably frustrated that Betty Zane wasn't a smooth telling. Despite its fragmented delivery, the novel is loaded with action and busy frontier life. From Betty's adventures in helping in the fort's defense to Isaac's capture and imprisonment, the narrative comes to life extremely well and makes for an easy, pleasant reading experience once readers adjust to Grey's writing style. In pairing the plot with the history of the country, the tumultuous territory and the hardened people that lived there, Grey's novel is a true testament to both the early settlers and the Native Americans. Both parties were desperately grasping for independence in a rugged, unsettled frontier and that sentiment is echoed masterfully by Grey's novel. Betty Zane is an absolute classic.
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