Genre: USA Western Fiction

Published: 1967 - Read:

The Power of the Dog

Thomas Savage (1915 - 2003)

Pages: 304


Jane Campion's award winning 2021 film of this novel has been described as a 'revisionist Western psychological drama'. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and makes interesting viewing - but in my view lacks the ambiguity and subtlety of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel. When one reviewer mentioned both Cormac McCarthy and John Williams ('Stoner') as being stylistically similar, I was sold immediately... I was not disappointed.

It is difficult to write about this books without giving too much away. Annie Proulx, author of 'Brokeback Mountain' described 'The Power of the Dog' as a "literary artwork" and an influence on her own novel. I would argue that she would have done well to emulate the understatement and ambiguity of the novel she claimed to admire. Jane Campion's film too cannot resist making explicit what is hinted at in Savage's novella.

The first 40 odd pages of this book would make a compelling short story: Rose Gordon, widowed after her doctor husband's suicide, struggles to bring up her withdrawn, clever, effeminate son in the harsh world of the cattle ranches and cowboys. When Rose marries it looks as if there will be a happy ending.

The contrasting characters of the two brothers, George and Phil, promises and delivers scope for a fascinating battle of wills - although really good, solid, decent George is no match for his embittered, scheming, cruel and driven brother. Phil's persecution and gas-lighting of Rose is painful to read. The portrayal of her son, Peter, is excellent. His bravery in the face of taunts is appealing; less attractive is his interest in vivisection - but doctors have to start somewhere!

The book delivers its shocking climax in the last few paragraphs. If only those who have seen the film could 'unsee' it and read this book first. Then they would be able to appreciate the strengths of the book, and the weaknesses in the multi-award winning film.

The writing style does remind me of McCarthy and Williams (and a more recent discovery, Willy Vlautin)


The Power of the Dog sold poorly and was largely forgotten until its republication in 2001, after which it began to be appreciated as a regional classic... So that's no awards