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The Pass 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."

Nature Wins in Thomas Savage’s “The Pass”

The Pass
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.

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14 comments

  1. I’ve been looking unsuccessfully for a nice 1st edition of this novel for a long time…good to see that it’s back in print. The Power of the Dog and I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (since reissued as The Sheep Queen) are both superb, particularly the former, which is on the list of my top three western novels. I did not find Savage’s second novel, Lona Hanson, to be very good, although it contains fragments of some of the ideas that show up in Power of the Dog.

    In the books I’ve read, Savage is not a happy writer. I’m looking forward to reading something of his with a little humor in it.

    The other writer from this era that doesn’t get the credit she deserves, although her books are currently in print, is Mildred Walker. Winter Wheat (1944) is worth your time.

  2. Thanks, Tom. There were certain scenes in “The Pass” that I thought were just hilarious, even though he plays them very deadpan. I didn’t mention it in my review, but there’s a scene where Jess goes to meet with a man he wants to hire. The man is recommended as the best worker, but as being kind of like “an old woman.” The way Jess humors the guy and brings him around to working for him is really funny. And another scene, on page 28, where he goes visiting some neighbors, and reports that he saw a woman making a dress, which prompts the nearly deaf old lady to cup her ear and demand details about its construction. “Silk? Did it rustle?”

    The humor reminded me of the kind that comes through in Cormac McCarthy & Annie Proulx at times.

    But then, I find a lot of funny stuff in Faulkner, too, so maybe I just have a weird sense of humor.

  3. Old NOLS friend of mine working in a small Laramie bookshop, recommended The Power of the Dog to me years ago. I bought it and left it on my shelf unread. Earlier this year, Montana the historical societies magazine had an excellent article on Thomas Savage. Weeks later, I was at CU for the Tom McGuane presentation and he mentioned Savage as one of the very best of western writers. Well, I went back to the Fort and started reading Savage that night. Great, great story. I didn’t hesitate to go out and get The Sheep Queen and The Pass. I pride myself on my knowledge of western literature and cannot believe a writer of Savage’s skills had escaped my notice. Should have carried his books in my pack long ago. He is exceptional. By the way, his personal story is also interesting. Check out the Winter 2008 issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History for the story on Thomas Savage (his real name).
    Finally, speaking of the limits of my knowledge (insert joke here), it sure would be nice to have some place to go where folks could recommend writers and stories from the West. Tom Page had some good recommendations on this site not long ago. We should develop a section for this here at New West.
    Michael

  4. Funny, I just looked up and realized the first coments on this review were from Mr. Page. Thanks again for another recommendation Tom. Keep ’em coming.
    Michael

  5. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the idea about making a place to go to suggest western books–I’ll think about how we could set that up.

  6. I’d really like to see you folks develop a repository reference list for “best western” reading…fantastic idea.

  7. Thomas Savage is certainly not a happy writer (and may not have been a happy person) but isn’t he lyrical in all the Dark? While he certainly employs what i consider classic regional and biting humor — i question that it is the “dominant mood.” This, like every other Savage novel of the West, is tragedy: humor may help his characters weather it, but in the long run they tend to make choices that backfire. Savage was consistently critical of Montana attitudes, and for this reason (among some others), he may have been ignored by canonistas, like The Last Best Place anthology. Perhaps he is finally getting his due: I find Savage fans all over the place, sometimes in unlikely places, and almost everyone feels like they are the “only one.” Let’s hear it for reprints! I only wish that this one did not have cover art that depicts the Rocky Mountain Front/Golden Triangle area: one does not find buttes like that in Savage country. But, this is a small niggling thing that just needles at a big critic. Thanks, Jen, for illuminating Savage’s work.

  8. This book is waiting on my bedside, but I recently went to a talk on Savage at UM, Missoula given by O. Alan Weltzien (who also wrote the forward to this, is a prof at UM Dillon, and is spear-heading the revival of Savage). Weltzien started the talk with a list of all the rather egregious ways that Savage has been neglected in the Western canon, the major books which claim to sweep and sum but seem to somehow avoid this major talent.

    After reading a few dark passages of Savage’s criticism of the west and western writers (and especially an over-reliance on western stereo-types), Weltzien suggested that some of the avoidance of Savage might be self-protective. He went on to argue (compellingly), that the type of “regional self-criticism” that Savage dishes out is pretty healthy (albeit sometimes uncomfortable). Anyway, I agree with Karl that Savage fans seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately. I hope to see more of them.

    lisa

  9. I’d have to say that the revival of Savage’s work (if there is one) has to start with the reissue of The Power of the Dog with the Proulx commentary. Heck, I can’t read Brokeback Mountain without thinking that Proulx had this book in mind (at least for a bit of inspiration) while writing the story…

    Regardless, it’s good to see there’s so many out there picking up his books. Maybe someday the same thing will happen for H.L. Davis!

  10. O. Alan Weltzien

    Dear Jenny, Michael, friend Karl, and friend Lisa:

    Thank you all for your deep interest in a writer who’s consumed me, in some respects, for many years now. Karl and I are charter members of the TS Appreciation Society, so to speak, and insofar as any TS scholar exists, I’m trying to fill the bill.
    I sure like your favorable review, Jenny, which friend Rick Newby (responsible, along with Chris Cauble of Riverbend) sent me as soon as you’d posted it.
    If anyone is interested, I’m giving a talk on Savage at the MHS (Helena) 24 September, and the following day, Karl is joining myself and fellow Savage fan, Sue Hart, at the Helena BookFest for a Savage panel. For those of you who don’t know, Sue Hart, longest serving professor at MSU Billings, knows more Montana literary history than anyone else I know anywhere, including Missoula. She’s writing an article for “Montana: The Mag” about the three Western novels of Elizabeth Savage.
    I’m also speaking about “Power” at the annual WLA (Wester Lit. Assn) conference at end of September (Spearfish, S. D.), and Karl and Sue will reprise our panel at the MT Festival of the Book (Missoula, 23-25 October).

    Meanwhile, I participated in the Lemhi County Historical Society annual (summer) road trip, 11 July 09, devoted to TS country and “The Pass” in particular. I contend “The Pass” forms Savage’s most Idahoan novel, in terms of setting. Jenny, I’m sending you, under different e-mail, three photos from this tour you might post.

    all best,

    Alan Weltzien
    Montana Western
    Dillon, MT 59725

  11. Savage and Cormac McCarthy? I’ve just been re-reading “The Pass” and find myself thinking there are striking similarities between these two writers–a precise, eloquent minimalism, putting objects, actions, and words to maximum use. A tough understanding of the low odds of success, even survival in the stark western landscapes of their novels. A bedrock of human sympathy that communicates more in the images or gestures than in the words. Or am I reaching?

  12. O. Alan Weltzien

    31 August 09

    I’m struck by my friend, Ken Egan’s, analogy between Tom Savage (re: “The Pass”) and Cormac McCarthy, whom I still think of, stylistically, in grand rhetorical gestures, orotund sentences, more than the stunning minimalism of his most recent pair of novels.
    When the Dillon Book Club discussed “The Pass” last spring, I felt anew Savage’s accuracy, in a novel set nearly a century ago, in gender dispositions, if not stereotypes, regarding speech. Mostly, the men don’t, or can’t talk, while at least one woman fills a predictable bill as chatterbox. Then, too, there is the tendency towards silence given sundry “unmentionable” subjects. Certainly a “bedrock of human sympathy” that survives the natural forces summarized by Savage in “the prairie.”

  13. I’d like to know Thomas Savage’s birth and death dates.

    I love the novel I Heard MY Sister Speak My Name and have read it sevral times; recently found another copy of it in large print. On some level the story is very personal for me.

  14. Hi Dina,

    Thomas Savage lived from 1915 to 2003. I haven’t read I Heard My Sister Speak My Name yet, but I will put it on my to-read stack!

    -Jenny