by Thomas Savage
Riverbend Publishing, 335 pages, $12.95
I’d never heard of Thomas Savage until I came across Riverbend Publishing and the Drumlummon Institute’s recent reprint of 1944’s The Pass, and after falling into this beautiful, multi-layered, funny, heart-wrenching novel of the Montana prairie, I’m kicking myself for not reading his books sooner. Savage was the author of thirteen novels. Born in Utah in 1915, he grew up in Horse Prairie, Montana and Lemhi, Idaho, spent brief stints in Missoula and Portland, Ore., then lived most of the rest of his life on the east coast until his death in 2003. But like Willa Cather, he set much of his fiction in the West where he grew up, and his first novel, 1944’s The Pass, shares Cather’s themes of the tight communities that form in isolated stretches of prairie and a reverence for the beauty of the open land coupled with a respect for the hardships that living there can bring. Annie Proulx is a Savage admirer; she wrote the afterword for a recent edition of his 1967 novel Power of the Dog, and describes The Pass in this way:
“Savage’s first novel, The Pass, is shot through with the deepest kind of landscape description which utterly controls the destinies and fortunes of the ranchers and Scandinavian farmers who settle on the prairie adjacent to a formidable pass. The people of the place love it beyond reason, the blue autumnal haze, the grassland stretched out, and they relish testing themselves against spring storms and baking drought. The novel is studded with brilliant portraits that already display Savage’s masterly ability to show the inner lives of characters, especially women, who are treated with a rare depth of understanding.”
Proulx is absolutely right about The Pass–the characters are distinctive and believably human, each given space to display his or her unique consciousnesses to the reader. It’s easy to see why Proulx admires Savage, because a blueprint for her style of fiction is evident in his work. She makes her characters a little more eccentric and hardened than Savage’s, but they both have a knack for getting the reader to laugh about their characters’ behavior without mocking them, and they share an admiration for the landscape that allows them to work in plenty of breathtaking description that is never gratuitous, because their characters’ lives and actions are so bound up with the land on which they live that beautiful—and dangerous—scenery is a part of the story.
The Pass has a simple, elegant plot that reminded me of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and O Pioneers! in its essential themes. Although this was Savage’s first book and he published it at age 29, he seemed to have an innate sense of structure as he slotted all the pieces into place. A young man from Wyoming, Jess Bentley, inherits some money after the death of his father, and decides to use it to become a rancher on the Montana prairie. He meets a rancher’s daughter named Beth who impresses him with her horsemanship, woos her with some talk about rope knots, marries her, and brings her to his new home in Montana.
The prairie families welcome the new couple with a party, and Jess gradually builds up his business in the happy, early days. Beth suffers some unnamed female ailment as a result of riding a wildly bucking horse, and the consequences of that day play out much later, after the Bentleys have enjoyed several prosperous years. Change comes to the prairie in the form of a railroad that allows access out of the valley over the formidable mountain pass of the title. The railroad enables the ranchers to make more money because they can now sell their cattle to faraway buyers. But despite modern advances, Savage’s cataclysmic ending makes clear that weather and the forces of nature still have the upper hand on the open prairie.
As sad as the ending is, the dominant mood of the rest of the book is good humor. Savage creates scene after scene in which he lovingly pokes fun at the earnest residents of the prairie. There’s Jess’s awkward display of knot tying knowledge when he’s first trying to make small talk with Beth: “‘Look at this one. Hackamore knot.’ He tied it, held it up. ‘Pretty knot. There’s lots of useful knots you can tie.'” And this discussion of musical ability among a group of cowhands:
“Red’s guitar was a part of the roundup. He was the only one who could play it, if you called playing two chords playing it. He knew the D chord and the A seventh, which, as Arthur Fisher said, was enough for songs like ‘Buffalo Gals,’ but not enough for the ‘Strawberry Roan,’ where you go down low like. When the D and A seventh chords were not enough, Red faked a chord by putting his fingers down on the frets anywhere…But Jess—he could play even the G chord, which was enough for any song a man might want to sing.”
Mrs. Cooper, the prairie’s resident moralist, appears in some memorably funny scenes. She throws a party for Beth when she is ill, and though Mrs. Cooper doesn’t approve of alcohol, she orders some wine. “I bought a little port wine for Beth,” she says. “A little before the meal. I’d take a little for appearance sake, and Amy.” Jess replies, “That’s a fine idea. Give you all an appetite.” And Mrs. Cooper answers back:
“‘For the appetite, and what good spirits might follow would be purely medicinal.’ Mrs. Cooper frowned. ‘I wanted to be sure. Last night I took a small glass when Newt had gone to bed. I sat right down in my chair and waited for the—effects. You couldn’t say they were harmful. I simply felt warm and rather encouraged.'”
To a modern reader, the only weakness about The Pass is the mysterious nature of the ailment that Beth suffers from riding a bucking horse, that causes the doctor to counsel her that she should never have children. She ends up having difficulty in childbirth, and a novelist working today would have to do a better job of creating a convincing medical justification for the central portion of the plot.
But Savage’s portrayal of Jess and Beth’s relationship is touching in any era. Because he so admired Beth’s riding, Jess hires a cook so she can join him on the range. “Must be awful to be a woman and have to cook,” Jess thinks, “Stick around a kitchen all day with flour and stuff and see the country through a pane of glass. Well, Beth wouldn’t have to do it.”
Thomas Savage’s The Pass, now back in print, is a welcome discovery for any reader who relishes dramas set on the Western plains.