Library Director’s Notebook
Most readers, no matter how voracious their reading appetites, tend to choose the same types of books to read. Some like to read mystery and suspense, others like history and biography. Some prefer mostly fiction; others won’t bother with a book unless it’s non-fiction.
Then there are some readers whose tastes are fairly eclectic; those who will pretty much read anything as long as it’s well written. I usually put myself in this category since I read both fiction and non-fiction, mysteries, novels, historical fiction, and humor, pretty much whatever grabs my attention on the library shelves. Yet recently I realized that one genre I never read is Westerns. Fortunately someone recommended a classic western novel just as I came to this realization. “Read The Virginian by Owen Wister”, he advised. It’s the best of the best”.
He was right. The Virginian, written in 1902 and never out of print, was voted in 1977 as the Greatest Western Novel of all time, by the Western American Writers Association.
Probably the most famous line ever uttered in a Western book or movie, “When you call me that–smile.” comes from the lips of the man known as the Virginian in his eponymous novel.
Black haired, long limbed, young and bold, the Virginian represents the epitome of a uniquely American prototype, the hard riding, slow spoken, rough and ready cowboy. The code of the West that states you never shoot an unarmed man, never steal a man’s horse or rustle his cattle, never back down from a fair fight, never turn down a drink, and never speak disrespectfully to a woman (at least to her face) is followed with unselfconscious grace by the Virginian, making him a man whom most men respect and most women admire.
However some men, those who are always hoping to make a quick, dishonest buck or bully a helpless stranger, are less than enamored of the Virginian and curse or avoid him whenever they can. Such a man is Trampas, an invertebrate cattle rustler who having lost to the Virginian in a card game does everything he can to bring about his downfall. The inevitable showdown between these two men looms like piling thunderclouds throughout the book and is finally resolved in a tense and utterly believable show down.
But it is not all poker games and shoot outs for the Virginian. When a young and independent-minded school marm named Molly Stark Wood comes from the Green mountains of Vermont to teach the children of ranchers, the Virginian, ever a dab hand with the ladies, comes courting. The fact that Molly holds him at arms’ length throughout most of the book only increases his ardor. Her secret affection for this handsome man, who although uneducated by most standards, has something about him that declares him to be one of nature’s true gentlemen, only grows stronger with each meeting.
Love, hatred, justice, philosophy, irony, slapstick, and a deep veneration for the fierce beauty of the West, are all crammed into 300 pages of The Virginian. It’s a great read, no matter what your reading tastes, and maybe a good introduction to a genre rich in story, stereotype, and satisfaction—the American Western.