The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

Set in the 1920s, The Power of the Dog focuses on brothers, Phil and George, and their Montana ranch.

The brothers have little in common, beside their family name.  Phil is brilliant at everything he turns his hand to, and is quick to pick up new skills.  He is tall and angular, and the men that work on the ranch are in complete awe of him.  Stocky George, on the other hand, is a slow learner, and has to work hard at everything in order to gain new skills.  Steady and reliable, he is kinder than Phil, who looks down on everyone with utter contempt.

When George, behind Phil’s back, marries a widow and brings her to the ranch, Phil is annoyed.  He views her as a gold digger – simply seeking to get her hands on the brothers’ wealth, and so he sets out on a mission to ridicule and ultimately destroy both Ruth and her son from her previous marriage, who he sees as being effeminate and a “sissy”.

Phil is not in any way a likeable character.  Undeniably brilliant, but judgmental, harsh, and set in his ways, he’s unlikely to listen to others, particularly when their opinions differ to his own.  He hates change, and he’s reluctant to invest in new technologies that might make their lives easier.  He seems to want everything to stay exactly as it is, in all likelihood so that he can retain his control.

George seems to bear all of this in stoic silence, and I think that marrying Ruth is his first true act of rebellion against his brother.  The fact that he initiates the relationship and marries her without his brother knowing indicates that he knows that this action won’t be accepted by his brother.  It seems a little naïve to think that he can just move her into the ranch following the marriage without retribution, however, although this lack of foresight does seem to be in keeping with George’s character.

Ruth was a character that I didn’t fully get to grips with.  I didn’t like the way in which Phil treated her, but I couldn’t help but feel that she made matters worse for herself.  Her first husband died while she was relatively young, and she was left to fend for both herself and her son.  This would have been challenging, particularly as she was isolated from her own family, and the fact that she succeeds and survives hints at some inner strength.  But, I didn’t get a sense of this once she’d moved to the ranch – it was as though she’d just given up, and she submits to Phil’s bullying without a word of complaint, even to her husband.

I enjoyed The Power of the Dog, although I did find it a little hard going at times.  At 300 or so pages, it isn’t a long novel, but it seemed to take a relatively long time to get through it.  It’s a detailed character study, particularly of Phil, whose thoughts, deeds and motivations are laid out in great detail.  Without providing any spoilers, there are hints to events from his past that do explain certain aspects of his character, although it didn’t make me empathise with him at all.

Throughout, I wasn’t sure how the story would end, but the conclusion was both unexpected and satisfying.  No spoilers, but it was concluded brilliantly, even if the delivery felt a little rushed.

Continuing in the recent trend for rediscovered classics, Vintage will reissue The Power of the Dog in February 2016.  Many thanks to them for sending me a proof copy.

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