Reading Group Roundup: The Power of the Dog

The report this month comes from HMP Lincoln where there are two groups, one face to face and the other remote.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage is a 1967 novel made into a film in 2021 starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s set in the Western state of Montana on a cattle ranch owned by two brothers. Phil seems to be a classic cowboy – a tough, swaggering man’s man whereas George is mild-mannered and slower, without Phil’s magnetic masculinity. But things begin to unravel when George brings home a wife and her teenaged son Peter.

The novel opens with brutal directness and detail:

‘Phil always did the castrating: first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like huge popcorn.’

One reader described it as ‘shocking and visceral but essential to plunge you into the raw, harsh, ugly, brutal world of the ranch hand…you realise as a reader this is not going to be a sanitised, family-friendly Western liked we’ve watched on TV’.

Another summed it up neatly: ‘It gave me chills’.

But not everyone: ‘It’s certainly in your face but it didn’t have any effect on me personally as I helped on a farm between the ages of 11 and 14.’

Phil is obsessed with the memory of Bronco Henry, a ranch hand he knew when he was himself a boy and young man. For Phil, Henry was the perfect embodiment of masculinity. But as readers noted, things are more complicated:

‘He represents at one level all that was good and noble about the rancher. Phil idolises him…But he ignited passions in Phil that he has been unable to reconcile himself with ever since.’

Rose’s son Peter is an awkward, spidery teenager who is seen by Phil as weak and unmasculine, everything Phil despises. Phil belittles Peter at every chance:

‘The kid had a little lisp just like every sissy Phil had ever heard…Phil couldn’t abide them. He didn’t know why, but they made him uncomfortable, right down to his guts. Why in hell didn’t they snap out of it and get human?’

But readers noticed unexpected similarities between them:

‘They both have a ‘sensitivity’ to things, landscapes and people. They have both internalised their feelings and become distant from those around them.’

In the end Peter – shockingly – reveals himself to be more than a match for Phil.

Phil is also threatened by the disappearance of the old ‘Wild West’. The book is set in 1925 and things are changing fast: the railroad has arrived, there are motor cars and even mail order catalogues:

‘The ranch hands and cowboys wore horsehide gloves ordered out of the catalogues of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward…how marvellous to get the order in the mail, how delicious and terrible to wait for the parcel from Seattle or Portland that might include with the new gloves, new shoes for town, phonograph records, a musical instrument to charm away the loneliness of winter evenings when the winds howled like wolves down from the mountain peaks.’

Not everyone in the groups liked the book but there was some high praise.

‘How utterly brilliant the book is written.’

‘Everything was brilliant about this book and I want to keep reading it.’

If your prison doesn’t have a reading group, encourage your librarian to have a look at our website or contact us at to get more information about the support we can offer. PRG is part of Give a Book.

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