You might say that Elizabeth Crook has written a classic boy’s adventure. The Which Way Tree is narrated by 17-year-old Benjamin Shreve, who tells the tale of an epic panther hunt in Civil War-era Texas. There are renegade soldiers, larger-than-life characters, chases through the Hill Country and a magnificent, terrifying beast.
But this is also the tale of a girl. Benjamin’s younger half-sister Samantha, (always known as Sam), is, like her mother, stubborn, resilient, and possessed of an animal determination. When the panther (we would call it a mountain lion today) makes a late night visit to the Shreve home, Sam’s mother, an African-American woman married to the children’s white father, goes into gory battle with the cat after it attacks Sam, hacking two toes off the panther before losing her life. Sam is left with hideous scars and an obsession to get vengeance.
It would take too much of the joy of this book away to reveal more of the particulars, but suffice it to say that the panther returns after the children are orphaned and a pursuit across South Texas ensues that involves Clarence Hamlin—a stupid, evil man, Hamlin’s wise uncle—Preacher Dob, Mr. Pacheco—a stylish Mexican, and a panther dog named Zechariah. It’s a rollicking ride and the telling of it gives Benjamin a chance to emerge as a writer, since the story unfolds in a series of “testaments” to a benevolent and encouraging judge.
There are hints of other great works here. The most obvious is Moby Dick, an allusion made explicit by Benjamin’s continuing references to The Whale, which is one of the few books he has read, it having been tossed up to him by Union prisoners held in the bottom of a canyon in exchange for corn. But the journey with a primal young girl across 19th century Texas has also been done recently by Paulette Jiles, another Texan writer, in her wonderful 2016 novel, News of the World. And of course, there are the Western boy’s adventures as a backdrop, too.
Even though there are some familiar elements, Crook has fashioned something uniquely hers here, too. Her young characters have agency and power that the adult characters both nurture and respect. She challenges racial presumptions and hints at the more fluid race relations in frontier Texas. And she is wise to the ways of the human heart.
There is also a rough Christian spirituality at work here, voiced most often by the old preacher, but also, in good Screwtape fashion by the evil Hamlin, as well. In a previous post I talked about the striking image of the Which Way Tree, but when the preacher comes to talk about Sam’s obsession with the panther, he sees how the animal is part of Sam’s struggle with the world.
“Her whole life, she has wanted to kill the panther,” Preacher Dob says. “The Bible says where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. If the panther’s hide should remain our little girl’s treasure, her heart will lie under a uprooted tree, beyond the edge of all she has ever known in her life, and far out of reach of them that cares for her…She is called on to walk off from this river and take nothing that she brought to it. That is a hard thing to do.” (251)
If I were only going to read one Texas book this year… Ha! Right! Listen, I know I’m a sucker for things Texan, but The Which Way Tree transcends my peculiar obsessions. This is a first-rate read that will stick with you.
**Full disclosure: Little, Brown and Co. gave me a copy of this book to review.