I have no idea how this book found its way into my house. I’m guessing that I bought it by mistake, thinking it was The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow which I’ve had on my wish list for a while now.
However I came to read it, I am very glad I did.
The story concerns a small set of characters living on or near the Burbank ranch in eastern Montana through the early part of the 20th century. The ranch is run by two brothers, George and Phil, who have taken over the operation from the parents who’ve retired to a hotel in Utah. A young doctor, a man not skilled enough to stay in the university and become a surgeon, arrives with his wife, Rose. He sets up shop in the nearby town.
Never really accepted by the towns-people, largely hired hands at the nearby ranches and poor immigrant farmers, the doctor fails to make much of a living, leaving the family income to his wife and the hotel/restaurant she runs. The doctor is a figure of fun among the men, too intellectual, too effete, too unimposing physically, to earn their respect. When it becomes clear that his son, Peter, is growing into a man most would call a ‘sissy,’ the men start to make fun of both father and son. When this becomes too much for the doctor who cannot bear what he sees as his own failure to provide for his family, he takes his own life.
Rose stays in the town, continues to run the hotel/restaurant not caring about or not noticing the way the townspeople talk about her and Peter behind their backs. She continues to work and to save money so her son can go to university and become the doctor his father never was.
Then George begins to come calling. After the two genuinely fall in love and marry, Rose and Peter move onto the ranch where they share a robber-baron like mansion with George and Phil.
Phil is a troubling character. Early on, the reader knows something is not right about him. His hatred of Rose, his contempt for any man who does not measure up to his vision of masculinity, his disregard for his own parents, all contribute to a growing tension in The Power of the Dog. Something is going to go wrong, I thought, something terrible is going to happen before this book is done, I just know it.
I felt this way, though the narrative never really gave any clues, never engaged in outright foreshadowing. It was just a nagging feeling I had. There’s no way these four characters can spend their lives together without things coming to a violent end.
The underlying psychological tension was just one of three reasons why The Power of the Dog is my new favorite book. The four characters themselves, along with a small cast of minor characters who come and go, are the second reason. Each, even the minor ones, are fully drawn, fully embodied people. I feel like I knew them, I understood them even Phil who is a very unattractive character. His homophobia is so extreme, you can’t help but wonder what it’s hiding which serves to make him a bit sympathetic. He lives in a male-only world on the Montana ranch, where he is as happy as he can ever hope to be. When Rose arrives, she serves to take George out of Phil’s world. When her son, now a young man, comes home from college, some awakens in Phil, reawakens.
The final reason why The Power of the Dog is my new favorite book is its clear sense of place. Annie Proulx in her afterwards calls this book a work of American landscape fiction, a genre I never heard of before though it turns out I’ve read quite a bit of it. I’ve a feeling calling this “landscape fiction” may just be a way to make reading westerns acceptable to more literary audiences, but I see what she means. The landscape is a constant presence in The Power of the Dog. On the ranch, in the town, alone or in a groups, the novel always has a feel of one man alone against the enormity of the nature around him.
There’s a very moving section about a Native American grandfather who is trying to take his young grandson to see the mountains that once were his homeland. The two have to sneak off of the reservation since they cannot get the documents necessary to leave it in 1920’s Montana. Trying to stay out of sight, they travel with a broken down horse pulling what passes for a cart, a sad echo of how their tribe once moved across the land. When Phil encounters them camping near a creek on the Burbank ranch he is enraged by them. He forces them to turn back, to leave the ranch. He is not moved by the grandson who tells him his grandfather was once a great chief. The grandfather has no choice but to obey Phil’s directions, but he takes comfort in knowing that he was at least able to show his grandson the mountains even if they never reached them. This vast prairie, the landscape of the Big Sky Country so large that you have to walk for days before you even see the mountains, is ever-present in The Power of the Dog. In this section of the book the three elements all come together: the wonderfully drawn characters, the immense landscape they inhabit and the psychological tension that always seems to be there even without explicitly or implicitly pointing it out.
Which, I think, shows how much I admired Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog and why it is my new favorite book.