Book Review: Betty Zane is a Frontier Classic
If you are looking for a great work of historical fiction about the colonial frontier, Betty Zane is a must read.
Today I completed reading a classic book about the American frontier, titled Betty Zane. This book was written in 1903 by famed frontier author Zane Grey. I came into this book completely by chance, after a friend recommended it to me as a book my girls would enjoy as they grow up. As I stood in the library, I held Riders of the Purple Sage (another Grey novel) in my hands when I got the recommendation. I figured it was worth a chance, and decided to swap books and checked out the title I had never heard of. After completing the book, I couldn’t be happier for taking the time to read it. For anyone interested in reading the book, here is a brief breakdown.
Betty Zane takes place in 1782 at Fort Henry located on the American frontier in modern day West Virginia. Colonel Ebenezer Zane had moved his family to the fort several years before, and was determined to help bring civilization to the rough and tumble frontier. Throughout their time at Fort Henry, the family had endured hardships, fought Indians, and worked hard to make the fort a place where Anglo families could come and live. Eventually, Colonel Zane’s younger sister Elizabeth, better known as Betty, comes to live with her brother on the frontier. Betty takes to frontier living, like a fish to water. She frolics through the surrounding forrest, rides her horse at breakneck speeds, and could make a tomato blush. It doesn’t take long for men and women alike to fall in love with this playful and energetic young girl. As you can imagine, in the wink of an eye, the hearty men at the fort make Betty the apple of their eye and she spends much of the story avoiding romantic encounters in order to spend as much time living the wild and carefree life on the American frontier. Eventually, through a series of events, the fort is besieged by a confederacy of Native American tribes, American traitors, and British soldiers. Outmanned, isolated, and defending innocent women and children, the pioneers are forced to fight for their lives in exciting battle which many historians regard as the last battle of the American Revolution.
One of the best reasons to read Betty Zane is the history that is loaded into its pages. Although Zane Grey never did meet Betty, her stories were passed down through the family. In fact, in the notes before the book begins, Zane Grey notes the following:
“For a hundred years the stories of Betty and Isaac Zane have been famliar, oft-repeated tales in my family-tales told with that pardonable ancestral pride which seems inherent in every one. My grandmother loved to cluster the children round her and tell them that when she was a little girl she had knelt at the feet of Betty Zane, and listened to the old lady as she told of her brother’s capture by the Indian Princess, of the burning of the Fort, and of her own race for life. I knew these stories by heart when a child.”
As Grey mentions, this book cannot be taken as a book of historical truth. Rather, Betty Zane would most likely be titled as creative non-fiction today. It is based almost completely on fact, with all of the correct people, in the correct places, at the correct time. Zane simply takes the well told stories he was told as a kid, adds his fantastic writing gifts to the story, and teaches history in an entertaining way. Although you can’t take it for truth, if you are looking to learn about life on the American frontier, it is certainly a good option.
At the end of the day, I would highly encourage anyone interested in learning about the American frontier to read Betty Zane. Boys, girls, men, women, old, and young alike can enjoy the writing of one of America’s first great frontier authors. On the downside, this book does take its sweet time getting to the juicy stuff. Do yourself a favor and keep reading through the middle section as Grey sets the stage for his final culmination. You’ll be glad you did.