HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains
Author: Owen Wister
Publisher: Dover Publications Inc., republished in 2006
Related website: www.doverpublications.com (publisher)
Language level: 3
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Older teens and adults
Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (published in 1902 by The Macmillan Company, New York City, NY; republished in 2006 by Dover Publications Inc., 31 E. 2nd St., Mineola, NY 11501). “The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: ‘When you call me that, smile.’ And he looked at Trampas across the table.” This novel, the first true western that paved the way for other famous authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, covers a span of five years and chronicles the acquaintance of the unnamed author/narrator with a strong, silent stranger known only as “The Virginian,” a young man in his twenties who works on Judge Henry’s Shiloh Ranch at Sunk Creek in the Wyoming territory.
The account begins when the narrator arrives in Medicine Bow, WY, around 1886, to visit Judge Henry and the Virginian is sent to escort him to Shiloh. During the succeeding years, the Virginian, who was born in old Virginia but had left home at age fourteen and come west, woos the pretty Miss Molly Stark Wood, who comes from Bennington, VT, to be the school teacher at Bear Creek, WY; is made foreman at Shiloh Ranch; and must deal with an ongoing enemy named Trampas, a roving cowboy who works for a while at Shiloh then turns to rustling. Will the Virginian win Miss Wood’s affection? What will happen to Trampas? When I was young and still living at home, I remember seeing a television show also entitled The Virginian (1962-1971), based on characters from this novel. It starred James Drury as the Virginian, Doug McClure as Trampas, and Lee J. Cobb as the Judge. However, the television series bore little resemblance to the plot of the book.
The Virginian is an interesting story in which several subplots develop over time. There are numerous references to smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, gambling, and dancing. In addition to several instances in which “curses,” “oaths,” and “profanities” are mentioned, the “d” and “h” words occur a few times and the Lord’s name is occasionally taken in vain. The phrase “son of a —–“ is used as quoted (not spelled out). In fact, this is what Trampas had called the Virginian when the latter responded, “When you call me that, smile.” The nearly equivalent term “ba*t*ard” is found once (completely spelled out). Nathaniel Bluedorn recommended the book in Hand that Rocks the Cradle: 400 Classic Books for Children, but I would urge great caution with younger children unless done as a read aloud where the offending language could be easily edited out. Otherwise, it does present a good, balanced viewpoint of what young manhood should be, with both toughness when needed and gentleness when required.