Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Which Way Tree: Revenge and Obsession in the Old West

The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook commanded my attention from the fist page. I loved the voice and the story kept my interest.

In 1866 Texas, Ben is called to testify about a murder incident that occurred three years previous. The judge hopes to determine if  Hanlin murdered eight Union soldier prisoners. Ben said he had come across Hanlin at the scene of the crime and that he was also at Hanlin's death.

A natural story teller, the boy's statement starts at the beginning of his life and the circuit judge, needing to move one, asks the boy to write down his testimony and mail it to him.

In a series of letters the boy relates a tale of single-minded vengeance.

Ben's mother died when he was a few years old. His father brought home a former slave to take care of the home and children; Sam was soon born.

When Ben was eight a panther attacked Sam. Her Sam's mother fought the cat and hacked off several of its toes. She died saving Sam's life, but the girl was left hideously scarred.

After the death of their father, the children struggled on their own. The nearby Civil War prisoner of war camp have cleared out ready game. Ben must travel far for game and one day he happened upon Hanlin pick-pocketing the bodies of dead Union prisoners.

Sam is obsessed with killing the panther. While stalking the panther, the children come into conflict with Hanlin. They rescue his prisoner Pacheco. Hanlin now holds a grudge against them, but in Pacheco they have found a friend.

Ben's Testament is told in a series of letters, showing a fatalistic acceptance of his hard life in a hostile environment filled with danger from Secesh, Indians, and bandits. He works a job and takes care of their few livestock but Sam is idle and defiant. Her obsession with killing the deadly panther takes the children on a journey fraught with danger and filled with colorful characters who have lived ungodly lives.

Preacher Dob warns Sam that vengeance belongs to the Lord, and she replies, only if he can beat me to it. Preacher Dobs found religion and seeks to expiate his sins. The Mexican Pacheco knows all his mistakes are behind him.

Ben's life is filled with loss and hardship but there is something noble and perfect about him. He is unassuming and grateful and earns the judge's esteem. And the readers. He is a marvelous creation.

Ben is a natural story-teller and the judge comes to appreciate the boy's love of writing. When Ben requests more paper and ink, the judge readily provides them. When Ben complains about his worn quill pen, wishing he had a modern pen, the judge sends that as well. The judge's gifts increase, sending Ben books including Tristram Shandy.

When Ben threw ears of corn over the fence to the Union prisoners someone in return threw back his treasure: a copy of Moby Dick. The novel enthralled the boy and he mentions the book twice in his Testament.

Ben's tale is inspired by Melville's novel. There is Sam's single-minded obsession with revenge on the beast called El Demonio de Dos Dedos--the Demon of Two Toes. I also noted how Pacheco face scarred by pocks of black gunpowder parallels Queequeg's Maori tattoos. I had to wonder if Ben has embellished his Testament, writing not subjective truth but transforming his tale. Isn't that what writers do? Take life and tweak it, giving it meaning and form?

An Act of God, or nature, brings Ben's tale to a nail-biting conclusion, revealing at last what the judge wanted to hear at the beginning: why Ben is convinced that Hanlin was a murderer and is deceased.

In her Acknowledgement, Crook states that her manuscript came to Robert Duvall, who played Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. (A marvelous movie and book!) I can imagine Crook's book as a movie. Here's hoping!

I received a free e-book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

From the publisher:
Early one morning in the remote hill country of Texas, a panther savagely attacks a family of homesteaders, mauling a young girl named Samantha and killing her mother, whose final act is to save her daughter’s life. Samantha and her half brother, Benjamin, survive, but she is left traumatized, her face horribly scarred. 
Narrated in Benjamin’s beguilingly plainspoken voice, The Which Way Tree is the story of Samantha’s unshakeable resolve to stalk and kill the infamous panther, rumored across the Rio Grande to be a demon, and avenge her mother’s death. In their quest she and Benjamin, now orphaned, enlist a charismatic Tejano outlaw and a haunted, compassionate preacher with an aging but relentless tracking dog. As the members of this unlikely posse hunt the panther, they are in turn pursued by a hapless but sadistic Confederate soldier with troubled family ties to the preacher and a score to settle. 
In the tradition of the great pursuit narratives, The Which Way Tree is a breathtaking saga of one steadfast girl’s revenge against an implacable and unknowable beast. Yet with the comedic undertones of Benjamin’s storytelling, it is also a timeless tale full of warmth and humor, and a testament to the enduring love that carries a sister and brother through a perilous adventure with all the dimensions of a legend.
The Which Way Tree
by Elizabeth Crook
Little, Brown and Company
Pub Date 06 Feb 2018
ISBN: 9780316434959
PRICE: $26.00