“The Power of the Dog” by Thomas Savage

If there were justice (or better taste) in the literary marketplace, surely one or another of Thomas Savage’s dozen novels would have been topping bestseller lists for the past 30-odd years….

Valerie Sayers, New York Times Book Review

….it is a shame, bordering on an outrage, that so few readers have discovered Thomas Savage.

Jonathan Yardley, Book Critic

These two rave reviews of Thomas Savage’s 1967 masterpiece, “The Power of the Dog”, are a prime example of why I spend most of my reading life off the best-seller list. The best books I read are the little gems that nobody’s ever heard of or that are languishing on a second-hand book store’s shelf because no Oprah Book Club boosted them into stratospheric best-sellers. How do I find these books? Two ways really: reading voraciously about books from trusted sources and recommendations from literary kindred spirits. I first read about “The Power of the Dog” here. And I am kicking myself for letting it stay on my TBR pile for literally years.


This book has reverberated in my head for days now. It has possibly the best first chapter I’ve ever read including a powerhouse opening line: “Phil always did the castrating….”

This is no run-of-the-windmill ranch hand. Oh no, by the end of the first chapter you have been introduced to one of the most complex and multi-layered characters ever written. Phil is extraordinary: he is brilliant, accomplished, educated, incredibly “able” at most anything he decides to do. He plays the banjo, speaks Greek and Latin, carves wood and forges steel, braids rawhide ropes, and lacerates everybody in his path. He is a repressed homosexual and exhibits it with extreme homophobia. Cruel and sadistic, his greatest power is the uncanny ability to detect the Achilles’ Heel in anybody he meets and then use it to his advantage. He is terrifying.

Phil and George are brothers each doing his part in owning and managing a wealthy cattle ranch. Phil does the “manly” bit – no irony there – and George takes care of the business side of ranch operations. Things are going along as they always have until good old solid George destroys the fraternal equilibrium in a big way by marrying – without Phil’s knowledge or approval – and bringing home to the ranch a young beautiful widow, Rose, and her son. This boy, studious and odd, Phil senses immediately is a “sissy.” And so Phil sets out to destroy this mother and son with his own highly-developed brand of psychological warfare.

Please don’t rule this book out of your future reading because “Western” novels are outside your regular reading genre. There are no hints of Zane Grey within these pages.  It is a grand novel which explores the deepest themes of our existence: family, love, hate, kindness, evil, and power. Thomas Savage builds the suspense brilliantly. He is a master at choosing words; no florid detail or overwriting. His plotting is intense and vivid. Each one of his characters is as real as anybody you’ve ever met and there is not one predictable moment.  Even though I desperately want to discuss the ending of this book, all I can say is I will never, ever forget it. Neither will you, I promise. My book has an excellent afterword written by Annie Proulx. I can’t help but wonder how much inspiration she may have drawn from this book for her own “Brokeback Mountain.”


Ruggedly handsome, wasn’t he? Thomas Savage, writer extraordinaire.

WARNING: There is another “The Power of the Dog” novel out there, written by Don Winslow.  It shows up more prominently on Amazon, so be sure you’ve got the right one when you hit that little “place order” button!!

About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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3 Responses to “The Power of the Dog” by Thomas Savage

  1. Mary says:

    Your description is enticing to say the least!


  2. Queenie says:

    I’m rellay into it, thanks for this great stuff!


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