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Obituaries

Thomas Savage, 88; Writer Best-Known for Western Novels Set in Montana

August 30, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Savage, a former wrangler and ranch hand who turned his Montana upbringing into spare, sensitive Western novels, has died. He was 88.

Savage died of unspecified causes July 25 in his retirement city of Virginia Beach, Va.

Although fewer than half of his 13 novels were set in the West, Savage established his reputation as a Western writer with his first two books, "The Pass" in 1944 and "Lona Hanson" in 1948, and capped his career with the 1988 "The Corner of Rife and Pacific," all set in Montana.

Agreeing with the author himself that he was more than a Western novelist, Publishers Weekly writer Francesca Coltrera once described him as "an emphatically American writer, a balladeer, almost, of the American scene."

Born in Salt Lake City, Savage grew up on a Montana ranch after his divorced mother remarried.

As a child he read -- and wrote -- fiction. He studied writing at the University of Montana and then moved east, graduating from Colby College.

He married novelist Elizabeth Fitzgerald and worked to support their growing family as a plumber's assistant, welder, railroad brakeman and insurance adjuster because his writing was not selling.

Savage was teaching English at Suffolk University in Boston when his second novel, "Lona Hanson," about a young rancher heroine who falls in love with a hired hand, made headlines.

He had been rejected for a $500 loan to buy furniture -- only to sell the manuscript to Columbia for $50,000 for a motion picture. The movie was never made.

Of the book, a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote, "Savage writes a terse, warm, moving prose.... The man can write, tell an impelling story, force you to believe in him against your will, and he has written one of the few Western stories of ranching life wherein guns play a small part...."

Savage was established as a novelist and never again had to worry about getting loans. He taught at Suffolk and then at Brandeis University until 1955, before devoting himself to writing full time.

Somewhat surprisingly, although Savage enjoyed universal critical acclaim for all of his novels, he never became well known and never had a best-seller. Musing about the reason, Savage once told Publishers Weekly, "I'm writing for rather highly educated people, and I think my writing is only going to appeal to people who have extreme sensitivity."

The author did enjoy a recent resurgence after an editor at Little, Brown discovered her grandmother's first-edition volume of Savage's 1967 Western novel "The Power of the Dog." Little, Brown, the original publisher, republished the book in 2001, along with Savage's 1977 "I Heard My Sister Speak My Name" under the new title of "The Sheep Queen."

In reviewing the reprinted "Power" for The Times two years ago, Susan Salter Reynolds applauded: "Savage writes like thunder and lightning. A flash will illuminate startling detail, a rumble will bring a fierce revelation, a philosophy, a big picture."

The two republished novels, along with Savage's final 1988 book, remain in print.

Savage is survived by a son, Russell; a daughter, Elizabeth; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

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