Rosthern author Victor Carl Friesen, 84, read his first Zane Grey novel when he was nine years old.
Several decades later, when he was in his mid-60s, after a storied career as a teacher, photographer and writer, he picked up another one of the legendary American author’s westerns, thinking it would provide a little “light reading.”
What he found, instead, was a richly-layered novel whose descriptive language captured not just the beauty and wildness of nature, but also human nature in all its complexity. He was so impressed he went on to read Grey’s 90 other books, of which 60 are westerns.
Rediscovering Zane Grey was a watershed moment for Friesen, an internationally-recognized literary critic who wrote both his Masters and Doctoral theses on another legendary American author, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). The similarities between Thoreau and Grey were remarkable, said Friesen in an interview at his home in Rosthern on Wednesday, August 2.
He describes both men as “philospher-naturalists.”
“I was very surprised at the way both these authors, separated by a century and a half in time, had basically the same approach to nature and society,” said Friesen.
He wrote a scholarly article on his observations which was published in the Thoreau Society’s journal. The article caught the attention of the Zane Grey’s West Society (ZGWS), an organization devoted to preserving, analyzing and celebrating the works of Zane Grey.
Friesen later befriended Charles (Chuck) Pfeiffer, a founding member of the ZGWS and an acknowledged authority on the famous writer.
“We became good friends and corresponded quite a bit until Chuck passed away in his mid-90s a few years ago,” said Friesen.
Recently, Friesen published, through publishing house McFarland and Company, based in Jefferson, North Carolina, a critically-acclaimed book entitled “Zane Grey’s Wild West: A study of 31 Novels.” The book earned him the Charles G. Pfeiffer award for academic excellence in research and writing from the ZGWS in 2016, but it wasn’t until June 2017 that it was actually presented to him at the ZGWS convention in Kanab, Utah. It was the first time the award has been given to a Canadian.
“It’s very humbling, and at the same time, very rewarding, to receive this award,” said Friesen. “It’s especially dear to me because I knew Chuck Pfeiffer personally. He was well-respected and his deep connections with the Zane Grey Society go a long way back.”
Friesen said it was tough to choose which of Zane Grey’s books would be included in his study.
“I went with what I considered to be his best writing, for the most part,” said Friesen. “My selection of novels provides as wide a sampling as possible, a range of subjects encompassing frontiersmen, horse wranglers, cowmen, gunners, prospectors, bandits, Native Americans, backwoodsmen, hunters, fishermen, foresters, farmers, teachers and railway and telegraph construction workers.
“The work of all these people is predominantly outdoors, with wild nature as setting, a determinant of action and often of character too.”
Each chapter in Friesen’s book is devoted to a single Zane Grey novel. Friesen’s style of writing is “popular scholarship”; he uses a colloquial style and throws in several humorous asides in his essays.
While Friesen is an admirer of Zane Grey’s literary achievements, he points out that Zane Grey, as a person, was no saint.
“He was a driven individual, a very strong-minded person,” said Friesen. “But he was also something of a womanizer and had other faults.
“In the end, though, it’s his writing that I’m fascinated with. I think it really speaks to people about important things.”
Some of Grey’s novels are now over 100 years old, and are still hugely popular around the world.
“I don’t think his books will ever go out of print,” said Friesen. “There’s something timeless about them.”