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Home > How to Get Started Reading Zane Grey

Introduction | ZG's Adult Romances of the American Frontier
Personal Rating of the Romances | Sequels | Subjects

A Personal Rating of the Romances

by Charles G. Pfeiffer
Director, Zane Grey's West Society

This list represents my personal preferences at the moment and is subject to change with the passage of time and the mood of the moment, as a comparison with previous editions will show. To the setting [S], which was formerly a part of this list, I have added the time of the action [T].

1. The Rainbow Trail [S., northeastern Arizona & southeastern Utah; T., 1886]. A sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage and one of the few instances in which the second story is as good or better than the first. Probably my favorite because of the empathy I feel for the main character, a defrocked minister. Grey is grappling with the problems of an adequate religious faith and tolerance. A Mormon and a First American play important roles. The book showcases Rainbow Bridge, one of the West’s most spectacular phenomena.

2. Riders of the Purple Sage [S., southeastern Utah & northeastern Arizona border; T., 1871]. Mormons, Gentiles, outlaws, and range riders interact in a thrilling story of adventure. The pressing problem for the heroine is finding a religious faith to replace an outgrown inherited one; for the hero it is finding a surrogate for revenge. This is generally considered to be the all-time best selling Western.

3. Wanderer of the Wasteland [S., the deserts of southern California; T., begins in 1878]. Grey’s premier attempt to understand the meaning of life. It involves outlaws, miners, a faithless wife and vindictive husband, unfortunates, and a knight of the wastelands seeking redemption for murder through suffering and good works. Every serious student of Grey must eventually come to terms with this book.

4. The Vanishing American [S., the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona; T., 1900-1918]. Be sure to read this in the paperback edition (1982), for the book was so far ahead of its time that Harper would not publish it as Grey wrote it. It is a haunting, and profoundly religious book about an educated First American in love with a white woman and caught between two cultures and two religions.

5. The Man of the Forest [S., the White Mountains of eastern Arizona; T., 1880s?]. An early hippie recluse is forced into struggling with the meaning of life and the ills of the society he has rejected. This is one of Grey’s books that has appealed to me more and more with the passage of time. It is crucial in understanding Grey’s philosophy of life. Mankind’s primitive and civilized drives vie within and between the loner and a prim Missouri school teacher. The number one best seller in 1920.

6. The U. P. Trail [S., Wyoming & Utah; T., 1866-69]. A fascinating account of the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Grey handles factual and geographic materials well. The book has some poignant minor characters, and an unforgettable description of one of the worst of the end-of-the-track hell-on-wheels temporary towns of the railroad. It was the number one best seller in 1918.

7. The Border Legion [S., southern Idaho & south-western Montana; T., 1863]. The book begins and ends in Idaho, but its main setting is in the gold mining camps along Alder Gulch in Montana. It is based on the story of Henry Plummer, the West’s most infamous sheriff-outlaw. Man’s struggle with his tendency to both good and evil is accentuated. The book is rated highly by such Grey scholars as Joe Wheeler and Frank Gruber. The book features two of Grey’s most memorable villains.

8. Robbers’ Roost [S., southeastern Utah; T., 1871]. A story set in a remote valley made famous by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. The hero, one of Grey’s most problematic, whose real name we never learn, is not one of Grey’s shining knights. The book is based on the actual story of an Englishman who founded a ranch in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah and hired outlaws to protect his interests from other outlaws. It is a compelling story of the possibility of human regeneration.

9. The Desert of Wheat [S., eastern Washington state; T., 1917-18]. The growing of wheat is complicated by the I. W. W. labor group and sabotage during World War One, war hysteria, family and racial conflicts, and loss of religious faith. This has Grey’s strongest statement on the importance of women in the development of a civilized nation. It was a 1919 best seller.

10. Woman of the Frontier [S., Arizona’s Mogollon Rim; T., 1885-1918]. This is one of the books Harper emasculated in a misguided attempt to protect the public. Dr. Loren Grey has done us a great service in restoring about eight pages of Chapter Six of his father’s most gripping writing that adds significantly to our understanding of Thirty Thousand on the Hoof.

11. Thirty Thousand on the Hoof [S., Arizona‘s Mogollon Rim; T., 1885-1918]. Originally titled The Frontier Wife, this is a tribute to the unsung heroines of the West. The title Harper selected calls attention to one of Grey’s important themes - the danger of obsessions. It also deals with some of the problems related to World War One. Dr. Joe Wheeler rates this at the top of Grey’s books, and I tend to agree.

12. To the Last Man [S., above and below Arizona’s Tonto Rim; T., 1887]. A graphic account of Arizona’s bloodiest feud. The foreward alone is worth the price of the book. Another Romeo and Juliet book (along with The Shepherd of Guadaloupe). One theme is the senseless and devastating power of hate; another is the possibility of a victorious struggle against an evil heritage. It was on the Best Seller List in 1922. The hero is part First American.

13. Desert Gold [S., Arizona-Mexico border; T., 1912-13]. I like beautiful horses and women, First Americans, primordial deserts, and adventure; and this book has them all - plus a Mexican revolution. Perhaps my high enjoyment rating of the book is based in part upon conditions relating to my first reading of the book and the extended, and still unsuccessful, efforts to solve all of its geographic puzzles.

14. The Call of the Canyon [S., Oak Creek Canyon southwest of Flagstaff, AZ; T., 1919]. An Eastern socialite has a hard time making up her mind whether or not to honor her engagement and follow her wounded veteran fiance to Arizona. One of Grey’s social problems books - neglected war veterans, the break down of education, immigration, and the sexual and social revolution following WW One. Along with Wanderer of the Wasteland, it contains Grey’s best effort to explain the problem of human suffering. It was on the Best Seller List in 1924.

15. The Thundering Herd [S., Texas Panhandle; T., 1874]. A highly accurate account of the near-extermination of the bison set in a background of romance and conservation. It is worth noting that the first chapter places the story in a much larger context than the last quarter of the 19th century.

16. Wildfire [S., Colorado River to Monument Valley in Arizona; T., early 1860s]. The thrilling story of the capture of a wild stallion; and the effect it had on the captor, the woman who won the stallion’s trust, and a man who had an obsession to own the fastest horses in his area. It was number three on the Best Seller list in 1917. It has a tomboy heroine who is “half horse.”

17. The Shepherd of Guadaloupe [S., the area around Las Vegas, NM; T., after World War One]. An unusual book. See how many stereotypes you find overturned - like an Anglo hero working as a shepherd for a Mexican in what is considered to be cattle country. It deals with feuding families and the hero’s struggle to find a meaningful religion after his loss of faith in God and country during World War One.

18. The Maverick Queen [S., South Pass City, Wyoming Territory; T., 1889]. Based on the true story of the fate of a suspected madam who was reputed to have traded her charms for unbranded calves (mavericks). Kit Bandon, the Maverick Queen, is perhaps Grey’s most intriguing female lead.

19. The Mysterious Rider [S., Colorado; T., c. 1880]. A remorseful man spends a lifetime trying to atone for a tragic mistake, and gives his life to prevent another. Part of the story is close enough to history that one of my sources of information while investigating the site of the book asked me not to record a name he had given me. The book was a best seller in 1921.

20. The Last of the Duanes [S., southcentral Texas; T., early 1870s]. This was published in Argosy in 1914, but was not available in book form until 1996. Grey had many cowboys that were handy with pistols, but I think Duane is his only true gunman. It is an absorbing story of a gunman’s haunting struggle with a deadly passion which continued throughout his outlaw days and into his service as a Texas Ranger.

21. Rangers of the Lone Star [S., southcentral Texas; T., early 1870s]. This was published in All-Story Cavalier Weekly in 1914 as The Lone Star Rangers. It is the story of two rangers, one working openly and the other undercover, who combine to break up a large and powerful outlaw gang in Texas’ Big Bend region. It is one of two Grey romances written in the first person (the other is Western Union). It is not nearly as somber as The Last of the Duanes.

22. The Lone Star Ranger [S., southcentral Texas; T., early 1870s]. Harper, not satisfied with either Last of the Duanes or The Lone Star Rangers, had an editor combine the outlaw years of the former with a reworked version of the latter to produce a not-too-comfortable-union in which the two rangers became one and a new heroine is introduced. For years Zane Grey fans helplessly pondered over the fate of Jennie, the first heroine; now we know. The Lone Star Ranger is still exciting reading, but I prefer the other two to it. It was on the Best Seller list in 1915.

23. Under the Tonto Rim [S., Tonto Basin east of Payson; T., early to mid ‘20s]. A social worker seeks to improve the living conditions of settlers in a remote area - some who want and some who do not want to be improved. This is one of Grey’s best presentations of the primitive and civilized nature of mankind, and the necessity of its proper balance in individuals and society if society is to improve. You will have grasped something of his meaning if you are satisfied with where Lucy spends the last two pages of the book.

24. Thunder Mountain [S., central Idaho; T., 1906] Based on a true incident in a gold mining camp. It stresses the intestinal fortitude it took to be a frontier wife. The book has an unusual and thought-provoking ending that I will not disclose. It is one of Grey’s books in which a protestant minister plays a deciding and positive part. It was on the Best Seller list in 1935.

25. Twin Sombreros [S., southeastern Colorado; T., 1880]. An important character of Knights of the Range takes the lead here and faces a terrible dilemma when he falls in love with beautiful identical twins whose brother has been murdered; but he also become involved with two other very attractive ladies, who may have something to do with the murder. Mankind’s dual nature is also important in this book. One twin is more passionate and the other more thoughtful, and the hero is drawn more to the one who matches whichever part of his dual nature is in ascendent at the moment. I shall not disclose the surprising suggestion one twin made to end the impasse nor which one finally won the hero.

26. Nevada [S., Oregon, California, and the Mogollon Plateau in Arizona; T., c. 1903]. One of the all-time best selling Westerns. The story deals with the difficulties of ranching on the lawless frontier. The friendship between Nevada and Ben may remind you of the biblical David and Jonathan. Another example in which the sequel is as good or better than the first (Forlorn River).

27. The Code of the West [S., Tonto Basin in Arizona; T., 1920s]. It deals with the same problems as The Call of the Canyon but with a backwoods hero and a saucy heroine from Erie, Pennsylvania. One of Grey’s most interesting supporting characters, a former sparring partner of Jack Dempsey’s, almost upstages the stars.

28. The Light of Western Stars [S., southern New Mexico-Arizona; T., c.1913]. The action takes place during one of the Mexican uprising in the early teens. The heroine is a jaded, but striking, New York socialite who came West to visit a black sheep brother and found meaning and love under the “Western Stars.” The book highlights the powerful influence for good of a strong and noble woman. Probably more English teachers have put this book on their reading lists than any other Grey romance.

29. The Heritage of the Desert [S., the Arizona Strip between the Grand Canyon and Utah; T., late 1870s]. Grey’s first literary success - and it is still a good story. It deals in part with the age old question of how to deal with evil - the other cheek or both fists. The story highlights a recuperated Easterner, a lovely Navajo-Spanish heroine, and a Mormon patriarch with the gift of seeing into the future.

30. The Last Trail [S., Fort Henry (Wheeling W. Virginia); T., 1783]. The story centers around the friendship of two strong men, the passing of the frontier, and the separating paths of the two bordermen. Some of the incidents in this book have haunted me for over half a century. Formerly, this was the last of the Ohio River Trilogy; now there is also George Washington, Frontiersman. Betty Zane and The Spirit of the Border should be read first and the Washington book last.

The Spirit of the Border [S., eastern Ohio; T. 1782]. Based on the story of the Moravian’s attempt to Christianize the Ohio Indians. Grey may have embellished history a little, but it is a noteworthy attempt to catch “the spirit of the border.” This book follows Betty Zane in the Ohio River Trilogy.

32. Betty Zane [S., Fort Henry (Wheeling, W. Virginia); T., 1769-82]. Nostalgia plays a part for me in rating this book, as it was the first ZG I read. It deals with the founding of Wheeling, West Virginia and the last battle of the Revolutionary War. It is a part of Grey’s family history - and history can be exciting.

33. George Washington, Frontiersman [S., Virginia and Pennsylvania; T., 1732-1775]. Grey had a stroke on August 11, 1937; he died of a heart attack October 23, 1939. During that two year period, he dictated this book and Western Union. The latter was published in 1939. Carlton Jackson edited the George Washington book, and it was published in 1994. The book begins with George’s birth and ends with his election in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress to be Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United Colonies. There is some unevenness in the writing, but it contains some memorable passages and is well worth reading.

34. The Deer Stalker [S., the Grand Canyon; T., 1924]. A New York socialite, bored with Eastern society, takes the blame for a sexual indiscretion of a friend and comes to Arizona. The Grand Canyon brings her to a new awareness of God’s handiwork in nature and adds new meaning and purpose to her life. The story includes an account of the unsuccessful deer drive of 1924 on the Kaibab Plateau where man had upset nature’s balance.

35. The Lost Wagon Train [S., Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, New Mexico; T., 1861 to late `70s]. A disgraced Southerner joins his band of outlaws with the Kiowas to pillage and destroy wagon trains traveling along the Cimarron Cut-off of the Santa Fe Trail. It is not only bloody and exciting, but it is also an interesting study in ethics and psychology. It may be based on the story of William Coe, a disgruntled Rebel sympathizer, who became the leader of an outlaw gang and built a fortress c. 1864 at the junction of Carrizo Creek and the Cimarron River about fifteen miles from the Cimarron Cut-off . It is not a sequel, but it needs to be read in conjunction with Fighting Caravans.

36. The Trail Driver [ S., cattle trails from Texas to Dodge City; T., 1871]. Grey confused the names of the Texas-Kansas cattle trails (as did many of the men who drove them), but was true to their spirit. Outlaws, First Americans, weather, and swollen rivers plagued the drovers. One of Grey’s two books where the heroine disguised herself as a boy; the other is West of the Pecos.

37. Fighting Caravans [S., the Santa Fe Trail; T.,begins in 1856]. The Santa Fe Trail played a more important role in our country’s history than most Americans realize, and Grey chronicles well the romance and dangers of the Old Trail. You will meet some of the trailblazers of the West such as Kit Carson and Lucian Maxwell.

38. Western Union [S., Nebraska, Wyoming; T., 1861]. The Western Union Company put their records at Grey’s disposal for the writing of this book. It is the story of stretching the Western Union telegraph wire from Gothenburg, Nebraska to Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory. It contains graphic descriptions of a prairie fire and a buffalo stampede and has much to commend it. Grey was autographing copies of it shortly before his fatal heart attack in 1939. One of the three friends, with a different name, however, appeared in The Maverick Queen.

39. Knights of the Range [S., eastern New Mexico; T., mid 1870s]. Many writers of Westerns have seen the cowboy as a modern knight errant. Grey does a good job with this theme in the story of a ranch bordering the Santa Fe Trail. As might be expected, there is much evil for the knights to overcome for the lovely Spanish-Anglo lady ranch owner. Note the diversity of the geographic and racial backgrounds of the faithful knights.

40. The Drift Fence [S., western edge of Mogollon Plateau; T., 1889]. A wealthy cattleman gives his tenderfoot nephew the controversial task of stringing a hundred mile barbed wire fence south of Flagstaff to prevent cattle from drifting into the Verde River Valley where they were being “appropriated” by rustlers and settlers. The wood mouse heroine, Molly Dunn, is one of my favorites.

41. The Hash Knife Outfit [S., Mogollon Plateau; T., 1890]. A sequel to The Drift Fence. An outlaw befriends two damsels in deep distress, one of whom is Molly and the other the sister of the tenderfoot nephew of The Drift Fence, and teaches them what it means to be a frontier wife. He then rides off into the sunset, without either one of them, to start an honest life.

42. Black Mesa [S., northeastern Arizona; T., 1880s(?)]. Illegal whiskey on the Navajo Reservation, cattle rustling, and a marital quadrangle help match the mood of the book to the title. It shares with Captives of the Desert the distinction of having the hero fall in love with a married woman.

43. Wild Horse Mesa [S., Southern Utah; T., 1890s (?)]. Climbing to the top of Wild Horse Mesa was one of the goals Grey was not able to achieve. This may not be one of Grey’s best, but the site is impressive, and there is an interesting mixture of pretty girls, wild horses, outlaws, First Americans, and Mexican Americans.

44. West of the Pecos [S.,a trail book that covers most of southern Texas from the Louisiana border on the east to the Pecos River on the west; T., late 1860s]. The heroine dresses as a boy to please her father until maturity and an accident uncovers her duplicity. If you are a Western history buff you will be interested in Grey’s treatment of such Western Americana as the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos and “the only law west of the Pecos” - Judge Roy Bean. There are a number of memorable incidents, and the geographic background is fascinating. The diversity of the riders is unusual - as is Pecos’ plan to help them start their own herds.

45. Forlorn River [S., the eastern California-Oregon border; T., around 1900]. The setting is an interesting and unusual geographic area which Grey treats with commendable accuracy and appreciation. Father-son conflict over the son’s vocation as a wild horse hunter is the dominant theme.

46. Arizona Ames [S., Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado; T., 1890s]. Another horseman from the Round Table lays aside the lance for the revolver and rides forth on his knightly quest to defend honor, right wrong, and protect the weak. His search for adventure and love takes him from Arizona to Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, where he finally finds his Holy Grail.

47. Shadow on the Trail [S., Mogollon Plateau; T.,1878]. In the Foreward Grey notes that many “hunted outlaws disappeared without leaving a trace,” and he set himself the task of “imaging and portraying what might have happened to one of these vanishing outlaws.” The story is loosely based on a lieutenant of the outlaw, Sam Bass.

48. Sunset Pass [S., south of Winslow, AZ; T., 1885]. I do not know why I do not particularly like this story. It deals with a true and unusual cattle rustling venture centering around Winslow a number of years later than Grey places the story. The discovery of, and visit to, the ranch, and an imagined cup of coffee with the heroine was a highlight of one summer’s research.

49. Captives of the Desert [S., Navajo Reservation; T., around 1918]. There is a controversy over how much of this book was written by Grey and how much by a secretary. There are aspects of the book which seem to support this thesis, but the plight of the First Americans, the problems of missionary activity, alcohol on the reservation, and a mismatched marriage are themes familiar to Grey’s readers.

50. The Fugitive Trail [S., the Texas Panhandle; T., shortly after the Civil War]. The hero is willing to take the rap of a bank robbery for his no-good brother because he thinks his brother is loved by the woman he loves, who is a nameless survivor of an Indian raid living with foster parents when the book begins. Cattle rustlers and Texas Rangers vie with each other for the distinction of being the major villains

51. The Stranger from the Tonto [S., the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers now under the waters of Lake Powell; T., about 1895]. It involves another Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, along with another knight errant rescuing another fair damsel in distress. Much of the action takes place in a nearly inaccessible outlaw hideout, which intrigues me more than the plot.

52. Rogue River Feud [S., southwestern Oregon; T., shortly after World War One]. Grey at one time owned property along the Rogue. Outstanding scenery, great fishing, a part First American heroine, a wounded and mistreated veteran, and conservation of Oregon’s fishing resources all play important roles.

53. Wyoming [S., Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming; T., early 1930s]. A modern young woman, but not a flapper of the twenties, is determined to establish her own independence. In the early thirties she runs away from her Chicago home to join a great uncle on a cattle ranch in Wyoming - hitchhiking across Nebraska and through the Black Hills of South Dakota in the process. The story is based upon events in the early life of one of Grey’s secretaries.

54. Stairs of Sand [S., desert area of southeastern California; T., 1896]. This is a sequel to Wanderer of the Wasteland. It is a little dreary in spots with some inconsistencies, but the imagery, the Jekyll and Hyde theme, and the unusual ending make for thoughtful reading.

55. Raiders of Spanish Peaks [S., Kansas, Colorado; T., late `80s (?)]. Three seasoned, but down at the heels, range riders are recruited by Buffalo Jones to shepherd an Ohio family from Garden City, Kansas to a ranch near the Spanish Peaks in south central Colorado. The inevitable rustlers, the three range riders, and the three lovely sisters all come to predictable ends.

56. The Dude Ranger [S., central eastern Arizona; T., 1890s (?)]. An Iowan inherits a ranch in eastern Arizona from an uncle in Chicago. Suspecting dishonesty on the part of the manager, he comes to the ranch as a tenderfoot looking for a job. His suspicion proves to be correct, but the solution is complicated by his falling in love with the manager’s daughter - who turns out to be quite a gal.

57. Lost Pueblo [S., [Four Corners area; T., 1920s]. A New York flapper meets a staid western archaeologist and a troubled love flourishes among the ruins. The lost pueblo is probably Inscription House thirty to forty miles west of Kayenta. Grey likes to write of the effect of various aspect of nature upon his characters. This one stresses the effects of a canyon.

58. Boulder Dam [S., near Las Vegas, Nevada; T., 1932]. The book will probably tell you more than you want to know about the construction of the Hoover Dam. The romantic interest centers around an ex-football player and a young woman who has been kidnaped by white slavers. This is one of Grey’s books which reminds us that man’s struggle with nature is only a small part of the story of the expansion of the universe.

59. The Arizona Clan [S., the Tonto Basin; T., c. 1880]. The book is concerned with “White Mule” (a potent bootleg whiskey) - its production and distribution, and its evil effects upon people.

60. Horse Heaven Hill [S., northeastern Washington; T., c. 1890(?)]. A spunky, near-penniless, part Nez Perce orphan from Idaho, who could hit jack rabbits with a revolver from horseback, comes to live with a wealthy uncle in Washington. Her love and concern for wild horses establishes a bond between her and her cousin’s fiance that soon turns into mutual love.

61. Valley of Wild Horses [S.,central western New Mexico; T., c. 1890 (?)]. The story centers around an undutiful wandering cowboy-gunman son, a too dutiful daughter, a petty villain, and captured wild horses that give the main characters a fresh start in life.

62. Majesty’s Rancho [S., southern New Mexico-Arizona border; T., 1932]. The very modern daughter of Madeline and Stewart (The Light of Western Stars) is expelled from a California university and returns home to the New Mexico ranch. A strait-laced young man joins Stewart in the battle against mobsters and modern rustlers, and finally wins the slightly chastened daughter.

Introduction | ZG's Adult Romances of the American Frontier | Personal Rating of the Romances | Sequels | Subjects

Home > How to Get Started Reading Zane Grey

Our thanks to Charles Pfeiffer for allowing us to use his article on this web page.

Historical images of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey
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Historical photos of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey