Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Many years ago I read a delightful book called The Amenities of Book-Collecting . It was written in 1918 by A. Edward Newton, a renowned collector of rare books (and owner of 10,000). In it he lists "One Hundred Good Novels" that every library should contain. Some on the list were already classics at the time and others were "modern" books with potential for fame. I've been intrigued by this list for years, especially by the lesser known books that never lived up to the hoopla. Number 96 was The Virginian by Owen Wister.

Recently I came across a Librivox recording of this book and decided to give it a try. It was narrated by only one reader which is always a plus at Librivox and she did a reasonably good job (though it irritated me when she pronounced the french word "toilette" as "toilet".) There were parts of this book I loved and parts I endured. For one thing this may be the first book I've ever read that was written by a man just for men. The love story was peripheral to the main plot and the worst dialogue in the book came out of the mouth of the female protagonist, Miss Molly Wood. Obviously Owen Wister didn't have the slightest idea how women think! Some of the chapters seemed pasted in like the hilarious stories about Emily the chicken, but apparently this book was formed out of a collection of previously printed stories.

I have mentioned profanity in another post so you might think it odd that I loved the swearing in this book. I loved it because it was there, but scarce. Obviously these were tough-as-nails cow punchers, but most of the expletives were left to the imagination in phrases such as, "He let off a stream of unprintable epithets".

According to Wikipedia the main story line of the book is a "highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming", a conflict between cattle ranchers and rustlers. Because it was written in 1902 there are several politically incorrect references to African Americans, but interestingly enough a condemnation of the lawless lynchings of Blacks by the KKK. There were moments of brilliance in Wister's writing, but sometimes the story seemed to drag and I wished it to be over.

The Virginian is a powerful story about justice - with a few ideas about equality and religion thrown in. While I did not agree with all of the author's opinions, he did make me think. This book has been made into a movie SIX times and I have enjoyed the recent version with Bill Pullman and Diane Lane. It is fairly true to the book, highlights the romance a little more, and doesn't make Miss Wood look quite as foolish as the book does.

1 comment:

Janet said...

What a great review. I find it refreshing that you refuse to generalize, but give your varied reactions to the book. I get a real sense of the reading experience from your post.