Home > 1960, 20th Century, American Literature, Gallmeister, Highly Recommended, Novel, Savage Thomas > The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

  1. March 10, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    This sounds really great – a fantastic character study!


    • March 11, 2020 at 10:03 pm

      It’s great, really. I wonder why it’s not better known.


  2. March 11, 2020 at 2:46 am

    I agree, it sounds great. I know these men, the awkward country men who never get married, and when they do you wonder how it came about. I worked on a farm for a while owned by a (sixtyish) brother and sister, and their brother and sister owned another farm nearby. I don’t think any of them were happy, they just didn’t know what they could do to make things different.


    • March 11, 2020 at 10:07 pm

      I think that George has lived under Phil’s domination and that marrying Rose is his biggest rebellious act.

      However, this one doesn’t have the same vibe as On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin for example. There’s more to the story than two bachelors with one that changes the balance of their life.
      Phil is an odd character and the way the story builds is almost thrillerish. (yes, now I invent words)


  3. Vishy
    March 12, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I read this book sometime back and found it quite fascinating. I remember being worried towards the end for Rose and Peter and praying “Thomas Savage, please don’t do anything to them.” I can’t remember what happened in the end now, but I think it wasn’t heartbreaking. Glad you liked this book 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 13, 2020 at 1:33 pm

      I had the same fear as you but had some faith in Peter.
      As for the ending, read again the last chapter, everything is there.


      • Vishy
        March 16, 2020 at 3:21 pm

        Will read the last chapter again soon 🙂


        • March 16, 2020 at 10:36 pm

          And come back to discuss it, please! 🙂


          • Vishy
            March 17, 2020 at 10:47 am

            Will do 🙂


  4. March 17, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    This sounds so well crafted, a really rewarding read. The character studies and the understanding of the landscape are really appealing.


    • March 19, 2020 at 9:31 pm

      Sorry for the late answer, we had to settle in our new routine of isolation.

      It’s worth reading, really.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. January 3, 2022 at 11:18 pm

    Wow, that is quite an opening paragraph! I followed the link through from your recommended Elizabeth Savage post, and now I’ve ended up buying both 🙂


    • January 3, 2022 at 11:22 pm

      It is, isn’t it?
      I loved this book, really.
      It has been made into film by Jane Campion. Available on Netflix.


      • January 4, 2022 at 12:13 am

        Yes, I saw that when I was ordering it – Amazon had changed the title to “The Power of the Dog: NOW A NETFLIX FILM STARRING BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH” 🙂 I’ll hold off on watching it because I like to read a book with the freedom to imagine the characters and scenes myself, instead of having the movie scenes playing before my eyes, but I might watch it afterwards to see how they compare. Have you seen it?


        • January 4, 2022 at 12:19 am

          I haven’t seen it yet. I’m waiting for a movie time with my sister-in-law to watch it. We’ve read the book together.


  6. Edna M Land
    February 21, 2022 at 2:06 pm

    I have and autographed copy of the power of the dog
    i met Mr Thomas savage in 2001


    • February 22, 2022 at 12:21 pm

      Lucky you! He and his wife are writers I would have liked to meet.
      Now I wish I could meet Rick Bass and Pete Fromm. Maybe they’ll do a tour in France, one of these days.


  1. July 12, 2020 at 7:48 am
  2. March 14, 2021 at 10:31 am

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