Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage

Dillon author O. Alan Weltzien pens biography of underrated novelist

Books & Writers

Savage West, a literary biography of neglected Montana novelist, Thomas Savage, by O. Alan Weltzien, seeks to return him to the position in Montana letters he so richly deserves.

Dillon author O. Alan Weltzien explores the life and fiction of one of Montana's most underrated authors, Thomas Savage.
Dillon author O. Alan Weltzien explores the life and fiction of one of Montana’s most underrated authors, Thomas Savage.

Savage wrote 13 novels (1944-88) that are mostly set in southwest Montana (and Idaho’s Lemhi River valley). Although Savage spent much of his later life in the Northeast, his formative years were spent in this rugged region and his ranching family formed the setting for much of his work.

Weltzien’s insightful and detailed literary biography chronicles the life and work of this neglected but deeply talented novelist. Savage, a closeted gay family man, was both an outsider and an insider, navigating an intense conflict between his sexual identity and the claustrophobic social restraints of the rural West.

Unlike many other Western writers, Savage avoided the formula westerns— so popular in his time – and offered instead a realistic, often subversive version of the region. His novels tell a hard, harsh story about dysfunctional families, loneliness and stifling provincialism in the small towns and ranches of the northern Rockies, and his minority interpretation of the West provides a unique vision and caustic counter-narrative contrary to the triumphant settler-colonialism themes that have shaped most Western literature.

“In my judgment, he proves to be one of Montana’s best novelists spanning much of the last century,” writes Weltzien.

The author has published several articles about Savage and oversaw the republication of his first two novels, The Pass (2009) and Lona Hanson (2011), both by Riverbend Publishing in cooperation with Drumlummon Institute. He also taught three of Savage’s novels in his English courses at University of Montana Western in Dillon and has led many classes and local groups on tours of what Weltzien calls “Thomas Savage country,” which stretches from Dillon to Horse Prairie and Bannock Pass, to Leadore, Lemhi and Salmon, ID.

Currently, internationally acclaimed film director Jane Campion of New Zealand is completing her own film adaptation of Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, to be released next year.

“Campion, an internationally acclaimed director, will do more to re-awaken interest in Savage than my biography,” Weltzien predicts. “But I’m proud of the book for many reasons because it honors a writer who always gained fantastic critical reviews but garnered poor sales. He should occupy a big place on Montana’s crowded literary map.”

Weltzien is a newly retired English professor at the UMW, and has published two chapbooks and 10 books, in addition to a slew of academic articles. Previous titles include a memoir, A Father and an Island, (Lewis-Clark Press, 2008), and three poetry collections, mostly recently Rembrandt in the Stairwell (FootHills Publishing, 2016).

Savage West was released in September by the University of Nevada Press.