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Thomas Savage: The Power of the Dog

Savage’s novel, despite being republished, has not had the attention it deserves. It really is a first-class Western novel. We start out with two stories, set in Montana in the 1920s. The first is about the Burbank brothers – Phil and George. They own a cattle ranch, inherited from their parents who have now retired and live in Salt Lake City. They do very well. Phil, the older brother, is the smarter one. He got straight A’s in college, is well read and articulate, when he wants to be. He can also be very nasty, putting down everyone from his brother (whom he calls Fatso) to the Native Americans who were ejected from the area only a few years back to the local tradesmen. However, he mixes easily with the hired hands, preferring male activities. George is quiet and not as bright but puts up with his brother. Both are single and have divided up the ranching duties, so that everything runs smoothly. They even still share a bedroom, though there is ample room in the ranch-house. The second story is of John Gordon, who studies medicine in Chicago but cannot get a permanent job in a hospital and, after marrying Rose, the only child of respectable but not very well-off parents, sets up as a doctor in Beech, the nearest (small) town to the Burbank ranch. They have a son, Peter, who is delicate and gets teased a lot but who holds his own. John, seeing that his life and career are going nowhere, takes to drink and, on one occasion, when he is put down by a rancher (who turns out to be Phil Burbank), gets drunk and hangs himself. Rose then opens a roadhouse and makes a living at that.

When the Burbank outfit brings the cattle into Beech for shipment by the railroad, they visit Rose’s roadhouse for dinner. Phil is characteristically nasty. George stays behind to apologize and ends up seeing Rose again and finally they marry. Phil, who is also a misogynist and may be a repressed homosexual, is opposed and critical. He barely speaks to Rose and, when he does, it is to be unpleasant. Rose finds life difficult in this environment and she too turns to drink. When Peter, who is away at school, comes to the ranch for the summer, Phil decides to befriend him so that he can turn him from his mother. Peter who is very smart and very capable sees through this and Phil pays the price.

Savage, who has clearly read his Willa Cather, tells a superb story of life on a ranch. We see not only the perspective of the two brothers, John, Rose and Peter, but also the Native Americans who had been ejected, the Burbank parents, whose main concern seems to be their geraniums, and other minor characters, each one carefully portrayed. Cather‘s farmers generally had a hard life. Phil and George do not. They work hard and are willing to do all the dirty work. Phil, in particular, looks down on the poor dirt farmers, often Swedes, scratching a living nearby but we see little of them. But it is the failure of John Gordon and his gradual slide to death, the strength of Peter who stands up to all adversity in his determination to become a doctor and, of course, Phil’s relationship with his brother and sister-in-law, that make this book such a strong one.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Little, Brown