Climbers and Creepers of the High Chapparal
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Published in: May-June 2022 issue.


A SCENE in Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog took me back to the years I spent growing up in Montana, where the story is set. Peter Gordon, a boy in his teens whose widowed mother has married one of two brothers who own a large cattle ranch, walks past the open tents where men who have spent the day haying are resting. The men begin to whistle, “the whistle men give to a girl,” as it is described in the novel on which the film is based. Peter is wearing white tennis shoes. He talks with a lisp and walks stiffly with a slight twitch of his hips. In other words, he does not belong on this ranch. But Peter doesn’t falter, and once he’s past the tents, he returns the way he came. This time there are no whistles. As enacted by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the scene took my breath away. I walked a version of this gay gauntlet a number of times growing up. In the place where I came of age, I did not know how to fit in, but what gave me the courage to keep walking was the conviction that some day I would leave Montana and find where I did belong.

            Peter Gordon is in some ways a self-representation for Thomas Savage, the author of the novel The Power of the Dog (1967). Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City. When he was two, his parents divorced. Three years later, his mother, a member of a powerful Idaho sheep ranching family, married a wealthy Montana cattle rancher. Savage grew up on these two ranches. Unlike Peter, the handsome and gregarious Savage could act the cowboy. He was so skilled with horses that he considered a career as a rodeo rider. But for some reason, Savage found Montana oppressive, and in 1937 he left to become a New Englander and a writer. In his fiction, however, Savage never abandoned the West. Eight of his thirteen novels are set in southwestern Montana. His most memorable characters are based on members of the two ranching families that raised him.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.

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Daniel A. Burr, a frequent contributor to this magazine, is based in Covington, Kentucky.